Whatever was calling to him, Zero was certain he liked it. The further he went toward whatever the thing was, the more of them he came across. And the more of them he came across, the more of them he got to burn.
If only he could get a damned vehicle to work. None of them worked. It didn’t matter how much gas they had, or what kind of condition they were in, they simply did not work. Damn all this walking. Walk walk walk walk walk. He wasn’t even sure how many days he had been walking.
But there were more of them to burn in this direction, and so he kept walking.
He walked through cities as much as he could, wading through the debris and ruins imagining what each building must have been like before. He passed a family-owned auto-body shop. It’s too fucking bad they can’t fix any of this shit. Oh, and look, another playground. And there’s little Johnny getting picked on again. He passed an old house that had no business being in the middle of a block of apartments and he imagined an old man and woman living there. The old woman had a frying pan in her hand and she bashed the old man’s head again and again. The bashing matched Zero’s steps. Step-bash, step-bash, step-bash.
He walked on.
As he made his way through a small town, a large rat passed too close to him, not knowing what a mistake that was. Zero had a fine meal of roasted rat that night. Even better, he found some old stale beer in the trunk of a car, and he drank every last bit of it. Stuffed more so than he could recall since before the world ended, he lounged on the hood of an old car, stared at the night sky, and waited for sleep to take him. He would not sleep, though, which happened sometimes. More than sometimes. Too often, to be honest.
That night was different; the calling seemed stronger than before. He felt sure there were some of them to be burned close-by, and a chance like that, he could not ignore. He leapt off the hood and began walking in that same direction; the same direction he had been walking for days. Or maybe it had been weeks. Hell, it could have been months. It didn’t matter.
He made his way through a small woodland to emerge in a clearing of some sort, and holy shit he had hit the mother-load! Hundreds of them. So many to burn!
Tears and snot and spit poured from his face and he was so dizzy, he could not tell which way was up and which way was down. He didn’t care. He let the flames take over. They burst out in all directions. He didn’t care where they went. He ran through the hoard, burning and burning as he went. He laughed heartily and marveled at the ash they left behind as it sparkled through the sky.
Oh shit! Look at that big fucker over there! I bet he wants to be burned, too!
And burn he did. He took a bit longer than the others, but he burned. They always burned. He would never be satisfied with the aftermath, but the moment of the burning was enough for Zero. Enough for that moment, anyway.
He continued dashing back and forth like a mad man, burning as he went. He was a mad man in that moment. He knew he was mad, but he didn’t care. He gave himself to it. Their numbers dwindled as most had been burned to ash and smoke, but he would not stop. He could not stop. He continued his flaming rampage.
A blinding blue light broke through his flames and he felt himself being choked. His flames died in that same moment, and he saw that the blue light was a girl. A young girl. A young girl in armor. A young girl in armor with blue fire in her eyes that held him by the throat and squeezed. He realized he couldn’t breathe.
She released him and he collapsed on the ground, gasping for air and laughing hysterically at the same time. It took him quite some time to regain steady breathing.
“What the fuck, girl? Why didn’t you squeeze a bit harder and for a bit longer?”
She stared down at him with cold anger and seemed to grit her teeth as she clenched her fists. “You have burned most of our supplies, all of our food stock, and you almost burned half the people. And you laugh. You laugh still.”
He looked up at her. “Well, maybe you should get the fuck out my way.”
She punched him square in the nose. It hurt. A lot. It was certainly broken. He tried to summon the fire in retaliation, but alas, he could never do that unless it was directed at them. Oh well.
The armored girl walked away and in her place stood an even younger girl. This one squatted next to him.
“Hey! Who are you? What’s your name? Where do you come from? That was amazing what you just did, and I’ve seen some amazing things. Would you like to hear about them? You really saved us just now, you know. Does your nose hurt? It’s all crooked now, I’ll have you know. Don’t look in a mirror if you can help it. If you come up to Fort Hilltop, I’m sure somebody will patch it up and straighten it up some. Though, you’ll have to wait in line. Many of the others are either hurt or dead. Or hurt and dead, I suppose, but I don’t think the dead ones care that they’re hurt. I think Mr. Otis is dead and I really liked him. Oh, and we have food. Sure you got most of the food, but there is some left despite what Alice said. Are you hungry? Why were you laughing like that?”
What the hell, is this punishment of some sort? Why couldn’t that other girl just finish me off? Zero stood up and walked toward the hill.
He was hungry from his bout of madness. It had taken a lot out of him and he was famished despite the roast rat and beer from earlier. He didn’t expect to get any food up there unless he just took it, but he walked toward the hill, anyway.
As he approached the hill, he could see that the size of the group was quite small, but he was pretty sure this was the largest group of normals he had come across since the world ended. Some of them were at work cleaning up the wreckage of whatever storm had just blown through, and others were weeping openly, loudly even. It was annoying. He wanted to leave.
An older man approached him wearing anger on his face and malice in his clenched fists, but he took one look at Zero’s nose, thought better of it, and turned around. Zero sat down on the ground. He didn’t like this. He didn’t like these people. He wasn’t sure he liked people at all, anymore. He wanted to leave. But, that girl had broken through his flame like it was nothing and he hadn’t thought that was possible before that moment.
He lay back on the ground and it occurred to him that whatever had been calling to him was in this area. He knew that meant more of them to burn, and he could not pass up that opportunity. Maybe he would stick around a day or two to see what happened.
He awoke to the feeling of being kicked in the ribs. A small boy was doing the deed and giggling about it between each and kick. When the boy saw Zero open his eyes, he ran off exclaiming, “I kicked the fire man, the fire man, the fire man with the crooked nose!” Fucking kids. Zero hoped his name was Johnny.
He concentrated on the pain still in his face when he noticed what sounded like an argument on the other side of the tent-thing he was lying behind.
“You told us we’d be safe here! We trusted you god damn it!” It was a man’s voice, rough and angry.
A gentle feminine voice answered, “She told you it was the safest place we had found. That’s all. Nobody knew they could burrow underground.”
More voices, “I want to go back to the city.”
The gentle feminine voice seemed to be directing the answers. “We left the city because there were too many places for them to hide and too many places for them to surprise. You all know that. Alice cannot always detect exactly where they are.”
“But there was food in the city!”
“And my Otis would probably still be alive if we hadn’t come out to this godforsaken hill. And poor little Marco!”
“Fort Hilltop! Get it right!” Zero recognized the young annoying girl’s voice.
The angry man was not amused. “Of all the fucking shit, you just shut the fuck up! And that name is fucking stupid!”
Zero had to agree with that one. Fort Stupid should be its name. It wasn’t even a fort. Why in the hell were they calling it that?
They argued for a bit about going to the city or staying on the hill. Zero grew bored. He looked at the small shack and imagined it had once been a whacking shed for young boys in the area. Coming and going every moment they could sneak away, or rather, entering the shed, coming, and then going. The shed probably had a collection of nudie mags, but all the pages were stuck together. Their desperation at seeing what was on the pages drove them to spend hours trying to pry the pages apart without damaging them.
The mention of himself brought him back to reality.
“And where is that son-of-a-bitch that burned everything? He needs to pay.”
There was some agreement among everyone. Zero didn’t care. He wasn’t paying shit.
There was a small moment of silence as if a hush had befallen the arguers, and Zero heard a frail voice, barely above a whisper.
“We are alive because of him. I summoned him here, and he will not be the last.”