Hellish Escalation

A cloud of dark red smoke bloomed to fill the area within the pentagram. The scent of spicy, candy cinnamon surprised Valerie slightly more than the red smoke.

“That worked?” she wondered aloud.

“You have the gift!” one of the brothers said. He hopped to his feet and stared intently into the red smoke; the rest of the cult members remained prostrated to concentrate on the pentagram. His voice sounded vaguely familiar to Valerie, but she couldn’t see any of their faces under the blue hood. It didn’t matter; they were all either Brothers or Sisters. Valerie had only been a member for about a week so far. She made it a point to think her own name every time someone called her, ‘Sister’ so she wouldn’t forget it.

Valerie did not imagine the alien invasion ending any time soon; it only began a month before she joined the cult. The aliens were powerful but didn’t seem concerned with hunting down every single human. It felt more like they were just going to start living on Earth until they supplanted humans completely. The one attempted nuke was as useless as all the coordinated attacks before it. The aliens almost acted like they didn’t even notice the explosion or radiation. The only thing she had left when she joined the cult was her name, and she was determined to hold on to it. 

The smoke began to dissipate from the pentagram but it left behind a short, squat pink-skinned figure with blood-red horns. He wore a crisp white suit with a red tie.

“Which one summoned me?” The demon asked with a nasally voice that took Valerie by surprise. It wasn’t what she expected from the rotund creature. Valerie looked at the Brother for guidance. He nodded and gestured for her to take responsibility.

“I did,” Valerie said. The demon was keeping an eye on both of them, then turned to give her his full attention.

“The summoning usually comes with an intent, but there must have been a glitch or something. I didn’t get one so, what do you want?” he asked. “We specialize in buying souls if you’re selling, but I’m open to negotiating pretty much anything.”

Valerie hadn’t expected the ritual to work. She briefly guessed that was why there was no intent. Now that he mentioned souls, she became a little worried about her own. The cult leader explained they were hoping to use the forces of hell to combat the aliens, but Valerie suddenly considered the cost.

“Aliens invaded,” she said. “What can Hell do to help us fight back?”

“Aliens?” the demon asked. His eyes widened in surprise, but he recovered quickly. He lifted his hand and made a ‘swipe down’ gesture with his hand. A large, grey slate of glass appeared and hovered in front of the demon. He focused on it and began typing, tapping, and swiping. After several seconds he seemed to find some sort of confirmation. “Oh shit, aliens,” he mumbled. His fingers fluttered across the slate one more time, extra quickly. Then, he dismissed the slate with a wave of his hand.

“Nothing. Thank you for calling, Good-bye,” The demon said. Red cinnamon smoke plumed around him and he disappeared into it.

“WAIT!” the Brother yelled out; Valerie was too surprised by how fast it all happened. She stared into the red smoke waiting for him to reappear. It had to be some sort of demon practical joke. She was relieved when she noticed movement in the smoke again.

“What’s your name?” a woman asked. The red smoke cleared to reveal a pale woman with dark hair. She wore a black suit, and she stared at Valerie with glowing golden stars in her eyes. Behind her, a pitch-black portal seemed to be swallowing the smoke. Again, the Brother acted quicker than her.

“Our Sisters do not need names,” he said quickly. “Who are you?” The woman turned to face him, and the stars vanished from her eyes.

“Maybe you didn’t notice, and that’s okay. It’s kind of dark in here,” she said. Her voice carried a cold, hurried edge. “I wasn’t talking to you.” Then she turned back to Valerie.

“I am talking to you, what’s your name?”

“Valerie,” she answered.

“Valerie, I’ve just been informed this Earth is infested with aliens. Would you like to go to a different one that isn’t?”

“YES!” Valerie readily agreed. She did not waste time wondering what the woman meant by a different Earth. All Valerie knew was that she was offered a safe haven. The woman stepped out of the black portal completely to introduce herself to Valerie.

“I’m Melody,” she said. Valerie meant to shake Melody’s hand, but she was distracted. She raised her hand and pointed at the Brother already sneaking into the portal. Melody smiled without turning around. The black hole disappeared then reappeared next to them; Brother walked out of it. He was immediately confused that he ended up in the same basement.

“Invitation only,” Melody. She gestured at the hole to encourage Valerie to enter. She did without hesitation.

“Please!” the Brother fell prostrate. He was now the only one; the rest of the cult sat up looking around. They were confused by her presence. “Goddess Melody! You must be a goddess to be so powerful!” he begged. “Is there nothing you can do about the aliens?”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Melody said. The palms of her hands began to glow with brilliant blue light. “I’m going to.”

HandHunters

“Not my problem,” Dexter mumbled to himself as he glanced at the text. He was sure he turned the phone off, but thinking fast was a major part of his success at pickpocketing. The mid-20s thief grabbed the phone during a moment of opportunity and did not hesitate to ditch it. After a careful bump into a rushing stranger, the phone was no longer in his position. Dexter continued strolling down the crowded street looking for his next opportunity.

It was mid-day and the weather was perfect. A golden sun hung in the azure sky while a gentle breeze flowed through the lunch crowd. Dexter watched anyone leaving a restaurant to see where they put their wallet. 10 minutes after he dumped the stolen cell phone he felt a vibration in his jeans pocket and heard an unfamiliar musical ringtone. He found the same stolen cellphone ringing and was surprised enough to answer the call.

“Hello?” Dexter asked.

“You’re in the hunt now,” a woman said. She sounded stern and professional, like a teacher reprimanding him. “Misplacing the phone won’t disqualify you.” He stopped walking and looked around. Each passing stranger minded their own business and he did not notice anyone that seemed to be watching him. Dexter shuffled into an alley to get out of the river of pedestrians. He had a million questions about what the hunt was and how the phone got back into his pocket; but, despite all his questions he only needed one answer.

“How do I get disqualified?” Dexter decided the fastest way out was just to talk through it. “I didn’t sign up for any sort of hunt.”

“You are currently designated as: The Hunted,” the woman said. “If you kill a Hunter, you may take his place. Only Hunters may withdraw from the game.”

“I didn’t volunteer for any games,” Dexter rephrased his only defense.

“You did,” she replied with a matter-of-fact tone. “Even if you weren’t aware of it at the time.”

“What kind of freaking game makes people play it without telling them? What kind of ass came up with that?” The woman giggled lightly into the phone.

“Probably the same kind of person that steals other people’s belongings,” she replied.

“This is about the phone? Look, I’ll give it back no sweat. I’ll even add some cash on top of it for the inconvenience.”

“It’s not about the phone, it’s about your actions. Your own decision entered you into the Hunt. By the way, you only have 15 minutes left on your head start.” Dexter sighed.

“Fine,” he said. “Can I get a short version of the rules to help me out?” He suspected that 15 minutes was not enough time to talk himself out of the game. He was in it and needed to learn how to play.

“There are four hunters. At the moment they’re currently watching you have this conversation,” Dexter couldn’t help but look around the empty alley. “In 15 minutes the feed will shut off and they’ll be let loose to stalk you. You’re lucky, most people wear themselves out during the headstart.”

“What if I go to the cops for protection?”

“I wouldn’t do that,” the woman said. “There’s no reason for innocent officers to die; and, they will die. I’m sure you’ve guessed by now this isn’t exactly a ‘legal’ game. The Hunters have no qualms about mowing down anyone that gets in their way.

“So they know what I look like, do I get to know anything about them?”

“Good question!” she replied. “No one’s ever asked about them. I can tell you this much: The four after you are #12 El Valiente, #25 El Borracho, #32 El Músico, and #34 El Soldado. I’ll send pictures to the phone.”

“Wait what do those numbers mean?” Dexter asked. The woman giggled again.

“If you don’t know that, you’re already losing. Head to Mundo’s tattoo shop and he’ll clue you in on the numbers. However, don’t think he’ll give you any protection. 12 minutes left.”

“Mundo’s is way across town!” Dexter replied. He’d seen the tattoo shop on occasion and even came close to visiting for his own tattoo.  “I can’t get there in 12 minutes!” She laughed at him one more time.

“Not my problem,” she said then hung up the phone.