Fire drenched China Pot in a deafening wave. Eyeliner was running down her cheeks from the heat slipping through her widened hands. The enamel on her her teeth stung whenever she dared a breath.
All three cameras zoomed-in on Fern’s widening grin, deviantly illuminated by the blaze pouring from his palms. His was a look of utter joy, of hysteria—the cameras loved it.
And Fern let up for a moment. He wanted to see China Pot’s face. He needed a closer look at her suffering. He took a step in her direction.
She was scared to drop her defense; another barrage could begin at any moment. She huddled still on the wavy asphalt around her and tried to take as many painless breaths as she could.
“Chin up, China Pot,” Fern said. “I’m not going to kill you, yet.”
She clenched her jaw from behind her porcelain bracers. There was no room to risk one of the rehearsed lines she had thought of on the way over in her blue Prius. Now she was only able to wipe the hot sweat from her forehead onto her shoulder. Her arms ached. Her throat burned. Her head throbbed. A taboo thought whisked itself to the front of her mind: Who could save her?
C.K. gritted his teeth watching the whole affair.
Blackout inspected the loose fillings in his molars with a swollen tongue. This was going to get ugly. He kept his peripherals on C.K. to ensure he didn’t interfere with the villainy.
Fern looked down at the slash across his red leather jacket, arms spread to assess the damage. “This was my favorite jacket, China baby,” he said leering down at her. “What are you gonna do about ruining my favorite jacket?”
China Pot chanced a peek through her guard and saw Fern with his hands pointed away from her. She instantly struck at him with a lance formed from her fingers.
But Fern was too far away. He had enough time to tilt his shoulder and focus a flame on her new, skinny appendage, slowly tracing the fire back to her failing defenses with one lazy turn of his hand.
She had known her plan would fail. Desperation was the only thing that sparked her to action. She looked at her fingers—they were badly singed and growing stiff. Her mouth was open, but it felt like no air was passing through.
Fern ripped the hanging straps of leather from his chest. “I asked you a question!” He fired a shot shy of her cheek, then watched her turn her arms to cradle her head.
She couldn’t do it, anymore. She had no fight left. So she sat in the middle of the street, quick, hot breaths slipping through her elbows and landing on her yoga pants. Defeated.
“Don’t tell me you’re giving up,” said an indignant Fern. He sprayed a flame at her porcelain feet. The edges of her pants frayed with the fire and revealed more of her hardened frame.
China Pot didn’t move.
He fired again, this time at her elbows, only to be met with the same response.
Fern bared teeth crimson with frustration. After finally getting his chance at revenge, she had the nerve to refuse a fight? His mind raced through options to keep the public’s interest. Then he sealed his lips into a scowl.
“Run if you want,” he said.
He noticed China Pot’s arms give a slight twitch.
“Go on,” he continued. “Run.”
She wiped her eyes and raised her head to study his expression—he seemed serious enough.
“Get on your feet,” Fern said with a hard edge, “and run away.”
The cameras were all pointed at China Pot, now, watching her put one hand on the pavement and scramble to stand.
A fireball exploded to her right. Unconsciously she covered her head.
“Run!” screamed Fern.
China Pot turned and darted in the opposite direction.
She didn’t make it 5 feet before a searing heat branded her back, sending her skidding to her knees.
Another red orb twirled in between Fern’s palms. “You better hurry up,” he said. “Who knows when I’ll fire again.”
She pushed her hands into the asphalt and made another last-ditch dash.
Fire banged against her left shoulder. It spun her around, and she slid backwards, smacking her head on the concrete. Tears blurred her vision. All she could see was a grey blob where the sky should have been. She bit the inside of her lip and slowly raised her torso off of the pavement, using her hands to steady herself in a shaken world. She focused on the white line under her chin until it stopped squirming. This was her first time feeling like this, and she hated everything about it.
“What’s wrong with you?!” she howled in Fern’s direction. The self-pity of her statement stung her tongue, though she could do nothing more to maintain her composure. She wanted out of this whole ordeal. She wanted release from this humiliation. She wanted, ever so dearly, to be saved.
Fern sauntered over to where China Pot was propped on one arm, eyeliner running down her cheeks and seeping into the corners of her mouth, hair charred and frayed. He clicked his tongue on the back of his teeth, shaking his head the whole time.
“That’s your only question?” He trained his eyes on her shiny, bare feet. “That’s the last thing you want to know before you die?”
She held her breath.
“Not, ‘How have you been these past 18 months?’” He stopped a few paces before her, then grinned with his eyes wide, like he was pinning her in place, “Or, ‘How come I haven’t seen you around lately?’ Well, I’ll tell you, China baby. I’ve been shitty.” With that last word he blasted her arm from underneath her.
She hit the ground with a soft thud.
C.K. tried to take a step forward.
Blackout yanked on the back of his black shirt.
C.K. searched his expression and found a solemn shake in Blackout’s face.
“Remember where you are,” he said through his teeth.
Fern fired to the left of her temple, forcing her to turn her head towards him. “I lost my apartment after our little run-in, you know,” he said. “I needed that money, China baby.” He raised his hand again, “You took all of my money.” He blasted her in the stomach where she lay.
She spat into air, an involuntary spasm lifting her torso off the ground for an excruciating second. The chopstick tying her hair in a bun fell to the pavement next to her.
“How many times you eat ramen noodles a week, China baby?”
She continued gasping for air between wet coughs.
“Once?” he asked. “Twice on a bad week, maybe?”
She rolled onto her side.
“Oh, you probably don’t eat ramen noodles, do you?” He waited for a response, then blasted her outstretched hand on the asphalt. “Do you?!” he yelled.
She jerked her hand back to her body before delivering a pitiful, “No.”
“Then let me rephrase that,” he said. “You ever tried to buy a month’s worth of groceries with 20 bucks?” He glowered down at her. “Huh?”
She cradled her hand and dared not look back at him, mumbling a hurried, “No.”
“You know how hungry I been, China baby?” he said. Then he looked down at the slash across his faded, black t-shirt. “You know how long I worn these same, damn, clothes?” He fired again, this time at her shoulder.
She flopped onto her back with her eyes swimming in fear.
C.K. couldn’t take it. He raised his voice in their direction, “Fern—”
It looked as if a needle pierced Fern’s side the way he jerked his chin over to C.K.
Only then did C.K. notice the gravity of his error—and after he had just been told, too.
Blackout pushed in front of C.K., projecting to the cameras, “Fern…o…flare,” he sputtered, eyes searching the air for syllables. “Ferno Flare,” he repeated, this time more confidently. “That’s what she deserves. The Ferno Flare. Give her a taste of the hell you’re sending her to.”
Fern was not so easily placated, though. He returned his attention to a cowering China Pot, who was crab-crawling across the concrete, too stupefied to look away but too terrified to stay near. Then he placed his left hand across the back of his right, his fingers sticking out perpendicularly from behind his right palm.
China Pot pushed herself back nearer to the burning pound she was supposed to be protecting. She watched as Fern’s hands sent seething ripples in every direction. Every hair left on her charred skin prickled and panicked. Her body told her to run, but her mind told her it was pointless, trapping her in a forlorn limbo. Fern’s hands were now indiscernible from the fire they were conjuring. The heat waves seemed to be tightening themselves around a common center, growing brighter with each pulse of energy. She felt like she was staring into the sun.
“Stand up,” Fern commanded.
China Pot couldn’t see him through the scorching rays beaming down at her.
“At least die like a hero,” he said.
There was no strength in her legs to stand, though. No power in her arms to support her own weight. All she wanted was to sink into the concrete and escape this fate. She turned onto her stomach, away from the light, and started a slow crawl towards the smoldering pound.
It all made him furious—C.K. calling him by his nickname in front of the cameras on their only shot at ever making it into the supers, the bumbling moron before him who couldn’t even put up enough of a fight to satisfy his revenge, and now the audacity of turning her back? When he held her very life in his hands? Fern decided this would be no swift death. He would have to make everyone realize the true terror behind his inferno.
At once the fire left his hands and dug itself into the back of China Pot with a resounding thud. It did not explode, but kept growing larger and hotter, its searing edges spreading languidly across her reddening frame.
Shrill cries filled the air.
Her ceramic barrier was warping in white-hot anguish. She could feel the fire pummeling her into the asphalt. In a few more moments, she would be reamed into ash. And all she could do was scream.
C.K. tugged loose of Blackout’s grip and made towards the scene.
Blackout yanked his arm this time.
“Let go of me!” he yelled, his voice joining the shrieks of China Pot.
Blackout slipped his hand under C.K.’s long-sleeved shirt, where he felt cool beads of sweat collecting. “You know I can’t let you do that,” he calmly intoned.
C.K. missed a breath. His eyes darted from Blackout to China Pot and back again.
“Now,” said Blackout, “you can either put on your best villain face and watch our work.” He inclined his head towards the flare, “Or you can wake up in a few minutes and forget anything ever happened.” Then Blackout deepened his tone and dug his fingers deeper into C.K.’s arm, “I can’t stay at Gram’s forever, C.K. You know that. It’s time you remember why you’re here.”
Blackout offered no other words. His ultimatum was cruelly simple. C.K. turned to Al next, hoping for an ally in his sympathies. And all he got was a slight tilt of Al’s pink head. Not even a shrug.
He watched the cameras soak up every ounce of China Pot’s pain with a perverse relish in focus and angle. Everyone else was in on the game except for him.
His left hand loosened around his tablet, and, for the first time, he let it drop to the ground, watched it tumble and land on its screen. He would be witness to Fern’s murder. No, he corrected himself, that was also too innocent for his chosen line of work. A long blink took him back to the stifling classrooms and starched persona he had yet to really escape. He set his jaw and opened his eyes: Yes, he would become the mastermind.
Fern watched China Pot reach her skinny arm out towards the cameras, begging for help in silent agony. He heard one of her ribs crack and didn’t flinch. If she wanted to make this easier on herself, she could drop her defense and let the fire consume her. It was her own stubborn fault for dragging it out this long.
The orb was now only a few seconds from crushing her skull into the pavement and incinerating her remains when a sharp fist dug itself into Fern’s stomach. And, just like that, he was doubled over, unable to move. He coughed and fell to a knee, wheezing black smoke in thick clouds. When he looked up to see what had hit him, China Pot was nowhere to be found, leaving his flare to sink a clean hole through the street.
“You have nothing to fear,” Yellow Bolt called over him to the cameras. “The young lady is safe.”
Fern whipped his head around.
“And I’ve already ensured the animals have all been taken to another facility.” He scowled down at Fern, who was still struggling to stay conscious at his feet. “Now, it’s time to defeat this despicable villain.”
Fern put both hands on the ground directly in front of Yellow Bolt. A wall of fire erupted from the spot, growing larger in both directions.
Yellow Bolt deftly dodged the sneak attack by jumping 10 feet back in an instant.
“Still got some fight left in you, huh?” he smiled.
Fern exhaled another smog cloud while staggering to his feet. “I never liked one-hit wonders.” The wall of fire drew a smoldering line between them and made no sign of slowing. Fern readied another fireball between his palms.
But this time Yellow Bolt’s fist found its way into Fern’s kidney from behind. He was brought to his knees, again. He had never felt anything close to this, before. It was like being tased by a wrecking ball. Harder breathing, now, and much more smoke. He couldn’t even see the attacks. He also couldn’t fathom staying down, though. The taste of iron rang around his mouth. Yellow Bolt had already zipped out of distance by the time he got to his feet, again.
“Give up!” called Yellow Bolt, pointing a long arm in his grey and yellow spandex. “You can’t win against the forces of Justice.”
Fern spit on the ground, “Justice?” The wall moved to make a 30-foot semi-circle around Fern. “We’re just starting to have some fun.”
“Okay,” Blackout pulled C.K. close and whispered, “You go in first and I’ll follow you.”
“You’re the one with the super power!” he hissed, all tension from the previous exchange dissipating with Bolt’s appearance
“You don’t have anymore of them robot things left?”
“You saw them all get fried by Al.”
“And you don’t have a backup robot?”
“I used all the backup robots!”
“Some super genius you turned out to be.”
C.K. rolled his eyes, “All you’ve gotta do is get close enough to touch him.”
“Do you see what he’s doing to Fern??”
“No, actually,” said C.K. “He’s moving too—”
“That’s my point!”
They watched Fern take an electrified kick to the shoulder. Or, rather, his response to it. Now he was the one they were worried about. Dark smoke kept gushing out of him like a coughing chimney.
The fire wall creeped along the street until it ended just before the brick buildings looking down on the heroic ass-whooping Fern was on the wrong side of. More black clouds spilled from his lungs. He locked eyes with Yellow Bolt through the smoke-filled haze.
A discerning glance from the wall to the cameras said, “You’re blocking our media coverage.”
Fern grinned, this time inhaling deeply and purposefully blowing smoke in front of himself. The line of fire running across the entire street and sidewalk grew several feet in the air, like a scorching curtain. The stage was set.
“Could he always control the flames like that?” asked C.K.
Blackout considered his question for a moment, “I don’t think so,” he said. “But I guess I’ve never really seen him this serious.”
C.K. picked his tablet back up and began videoing the scene from their vantage point twenty or so feet from the action.
Sensing something dangerous was about to happen, Al slipped over to the nearest alleyway, steadying himself on the brick will with a slick, pink hand.
The cameras were in disarray. Nobody had a decent shot through the wall of fire, and even if they did, the smoke posed another problem. They looked around for something to stand on, finally deciding to hop onto their vans and take what footage they could get.
Fern called more fire to his sides; his face flickered a clouded orange.
Yellow Bolt could barely discern his figure through the smog. The smoke stung his eyes and irritated his lungs. He covered his mouth. This was proving more challenging than he thought, though he doubted he would have to bring out his full strength. He decided to see what this Terriferno had up his sleeve.
Fern raised both hands above his head, and the wall doubled in size. Windows on the buildings nearest the flame burst from the heat. Then it all tilted forward into a crest, rushing straight for Yellow Bolt.
The wave crashed into the street. Every car parked along the side erupted to amplify the dizzying blaze.
Blackout and C.K. hit the concrete with their arms shielding their faces from the inferno a half block away. Al dipped around the corner and turned his head from the intense heat wave blowing past.
Fern was already on the move, out of breath and limping as he was. He crouched low to the ground and closed a flickering orb between his palms, waiting.
Bolt rained electricity to the smoke-covered ground in an indiscriminate blanket.
A jolt hit his shoulder, but he managed to remain motionless.
He heard Bolt strike to the ground 10 feet to his right, and he fired the exploding orb a couple of feet in front of where he thought Bolt was.
Shrapnel flew at Bolt from his left. He didn’t have time to deflect all of it, and small pieces of sharp gravel dug itself into his left leg and torso.
Fern threw himself at Bolt from behind with both hands aflame and grasping for the famous Super Hero’s neck.
Yellow Bolt was through playing, though. The sizzling shrapnel in his leg and side only pissed him off. He felt the heat from Fern’s hands approaching behind him, and, in one impossibly-swift motion, snatched Fern by his elbow, shocking him violently with his left hand before hammering him in the sternum with his right fist.
Fern flopped to the ground, mouth agape, drooling onto the pavement. The last thing he saw while slipping into unconsciousness was C.K. flying through the air in a desperate drop-kick from Yellow Bolt’s left side.
Bolt appeared beside C.K. in mid-air and sent him straight into the asphalt with a flashing elbow to the stomach. Blackout was already sliding in from the right when Bolt hit C.K., unable to change direction. He crashed into C.K. and watched as Bolt hovered a hand over the two of them. Sparks filled his vision, and he was dragged into the common darkness shared by Fern and C.K.
The cameras zoomed in as a warm wind cleared the last of the smoke from the street.
Yellow Bolt was standing triumphantly over the rag doll bodies of the rag-tag villains, just in time to strike his pose before giving interviews.