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Hearts of Fire
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Written circa 2009.

There is no love in Hell, not even between father and son.

He had dragged him, kicking and screaming, through all nine Circles and then proceeded to mutilate him without mercy. Ice shattered and splintered from the punishment being dealt in this lowest of realms, and screams of fury mixed with those of untold pain and suffering echoed as far as Purgatory. When at last the endless hours of assault came to a finish, Mephistopheles had rendered his son a bleeding, brutalized tangle of unholy flesh, still begging and weeping for forgiveness as he cowered on the floor of ice.

“You have betrayed me, Atrocor,” Mephisto snarled, using his son’s Latin name. “You conspired to raze my throne and destroy my rule—and for what? You know nothing of the power required to hold dominion over the Underworld! You were a fool to think you could get away with treason so high as this.”

“Then I am no different from you, Father.” Blackheart spat his dark blood. “You once thought you could challenge God and defeat Him.” He smiled insolently through his fangs. “And now you can’t even win a bet with the Ghost Rider—”

Mephisto delivered a powerful kick to his son’s face, sending him spinning and reeling across the ice. “Flesh of my flesh,” he growled, walking to where Blackheart lay and dragging him up by his hair. “Bone of my bone. Blood of my blood . . . Indeed our ambitions are similar, my son. But unlike you, I was able to rise from my defeat and forge a realm to rival that of Heaven’s. One day I will take back what is due to me, but you shall have no part in it. No, Atrocor. I condemn you to remain here in the Ninth Circle—”

Blackheart’s eyes went wide. “No!”

“Bound forever by the sins of your treason—”

“No, please! Father!”

“Locked within a heart of ice a thousand times blacker than yours!”

His six wings stretching wide, Mephisto opened a grave in the ice and threw his son within it. Blackheart, stripped of his demonic flesh and writhing in his weakened human form, raised his hands forth in a plaintive cry just as he was sealed within a wall of ice. The Devil lowered his hand and stared at the frozen form of his only progeny, remorseful that such a treacherous worm had been the seed of his loins. Perhaps, he thought, it was time to think about extending his family again.

Mephisto retreated deep into the dark reaches of the icy cavern to brood, leaving his son lying frozen between the bodies of Judas Iscariot and Marcus Brutus.



Blue Cactus Tavern
Caliente, NV


Every biker who pulled into the lot paused to silently admire the sleek chrome and black chopper parked cockily right up front. They never would have guessed that it belonged to the moping, short-haired loser at the bar who spent more time boring holes into the bottom of his glass with his hollow gaze than actually drinking.

Six months had passed since he’d said goodbye to Roxanne, and he was a little dismayed at how quickly she had disappeared from his thoughts. No matter —she was better off without him, they both knew that. He had a job to do, a vow to uphold, and going back now was no longer an option. Besides, he couldn’t rob her of a normal life. He’d put her through enough already, dealing with The Hidden and that conniving bastard Blackheart.

I hope he’s rotting, thought Johnny Blaze, nodding to the barkeep for another drink. The tender shook his head and filled another tall glass of water, then leaned on the counter and eyed Blaze with a suspicious gaze. “Look, buddy,” he grunted. “You gonna order anything real tonight?”

“I’m warming up to it,” Johnny muttered, popping another peanut into his mouth. “And I’m not your buddy.”

The barkeep skulked off with a grumble but didn’t bother Johnny again.

Johnny sat at the bar and munched on beer nuts even though he wasn’t hungry. The crack and clatter of the pool tables and the white noise of conversation drifted in and out of his head, mixing with his thoughts like the hazy film of blue smoke that filled the bar. He thought a lot about his future, the road, where he would be two weeks from now. It was a free life, free as can be, but Johnny couldn’t help feeling lost and disoriented.

The door to the tavern opened and shut, and some of the din died down. Johnny took no notice. However, he did notice the light “tup tup” of high heels approaching the bar, but he was far too considerate a man to turn around and ogle. As it turned out there was no need, because the high heels and everything that went with it took a seat beside him at the bar. “Two tequila shots,” said a sultry, smoky voice, and the barkeep jumped faster than a squirrel dodging traffic.

Johnny turned to see what had arrived: a woman—most definitely a woman— with long black hair and pale eyes, red lips, long lashes, curves that would kill a man if he tried to take them at 60 mph. She wore a strapless black dress that fell to her knees and a black sash tied loosely about her long white neck. She smiled at Blaze and gave him a wink, and Johnny was struck by a certain sense of familiarity.

The barkeep put two shot glasses of tequila on the counter, and the woman pushed one of them toward Johnny. “Go ahead. It’s on me.”

“Thanks, but I don’t accept free drinks from beautiful women. Rufies, you know.”

She grinned, and again Johnny was struck by a sense of déjà vu. “Suit yourself.” She gracefully tossed back her shot, ordered another as she picked up Johnny’s. “You’re a hard man to find, Mr Blaze.”

Johnny’s heart immediately began to pound, his palms to sweat. “You a fan?”

“In a way. I especially admire your later stunts. The ones with the flaming skull.”

Johnny took a deep breath and pretended to sigh with disinterest, though in reality he was so nervous that if you slammed a door he would probably combust right on the bar stool. “So,” he drawled low enough to keep out of earshot, “what kind of a demon are you?”

“A famous one,” she answered quickly. “Almost as famous as you, Ghost Rider.”

“What’s your name?”

She pulled a pack of cigarettes from her purse and tapped one out. “I have lots of names.”

“The one on your driver’s license then.”

“You’ve got a sense of humor, Johnny,” she chuckled. “You’ll need it where you’re going.”

“Really? Doesn’t Hell have enough comedians?”

“No,” she sighed, lighting up without a lighter and sending a cloud of smoke into the air. For a moment it seemed to take on the form of a flower, but in a second it had disappeared. “We don’t have much to laugh about these days. Especially me.”

Johnny downed his water. God knew when he would see the stuff again. “You never told me who you were,” he mentioned. “You’re not like the rest of the demons I’ve met.”

“That’s because I’m not here to take over the world or to reap the souls of all sinners,” she muttered, casting a glance at Blaze. “That was my husband’s job. Ex-husband, actually.”

“I’m sorry, what?”

The woman sighed, held out her hand. She had long, pretty nails. “You can call me Lilith. I’m the Queen of Hell. Or I was, at least.”

Johnny balked for a second, then took Lilith’s hand. It was soft and cool. “Nice to meet you, Lilith. Now perhaps you wouldn’t mind telling me what the wife of Satan—”

“Ex-wife.”

“—ex-wife of Satan is doing in a bar in the middle of the desert.”

“Well,” she said brusquely, tossing back another shot. “My dickhead ex likes to gamble. You probably know that. He’s always liked gambling, especially with souls. Over fifteen years ago he made a deal with a young man that he couldn’t refuse, and just recently that deal came back to bite him in the ass. You follow?”

“Yeah, I follow.”

“Good, because I’m counting on you, Mr Blaze. You see, my son takes after his father—dreams big, fails bigger, doesn’t take a hint. If only I’d had a girl everything would be different, but that just wouldn’t be fair. Mephisto wanted a son and so a son he got. We named him Atrocor. You know him as Blackheart.”

Johnny nearly lost his balance. Now he understood why she looked so familiar: there were the eyes, the skin, the dark hair, the features he had thought belonged only to the demon Blackheart. And this—this gorgeous creature (demon, Johnny, she’s a demon, he reminded himself) was the mother of that miserable little bastard—

“So you’re here to fight me, right?” Johnny inquired. “I mean, I did kill your son.”

Lilith rolled her eyes and grinned. “Get real, Johnny-boy. You killed the thousand souls within him, sucked him dry, left his mortal raiment a shell. Trust me, my son is very much alive . . . though I don’t know for how much longer.” Her tone darkened and her expression became angry. “Mephisto, that two-timing son of a bitch, has locked Atrocor away in the Ninth Circle of Hell. After beating the shit out of him, I might add. I am banned from ever seeing him again, and Mephisto has disowned him, pronounced him a failure and an exile.” She ground her cigarette into an ashtray and rested her face in her hands. And then, in a voice weak and bereft of any evil, the voice of a stricken mother, Lilith whispered, “My baby is trapped in the hall of ice, and I couldn’t even scratch him out if I tried.”

She raised her head and Johnny saw that her eyeliner was beginning to smear. “I’ve been searching for you because I need your help, Johnny Blaze. Mephisto is out to have another child. But I’m through with kids, Johnny. Atrocor was a pain in the ass to raise, and I’m not going through that shit again. I told my husband there was no way I was going to bear him another son while my firstborn is imprisoned in the deepest realm of Hell.”

“What did he do?”

Lilith scoffed. “He told me that if I wouldn’t carry his child then he would find someone who would. I told him I was leaving, he said nothing. He’s been on a mission to find his new bride ever since.”

Johnny threaded his fingers together and digested the information. “So . . . Why did you find me?”

“Because this concerns you, too, Johnny,” Lilith muttered, tapping her nails against her empty shot glass. “I gave birth to Atrocor before I fell. He was born an angel, you see. He was the first born angel, as the son of the unfallen Satan. The Almighty disapproved because angels were meant to serve, not create, so Atrocor and I were cast down. That, along with Mephisto’s envy of mankind, is what started the War. You already know the end so I’ll spare you, but you must understand, Johnny, my son is a demon and I know he’s done you great wrong. But if you do not help me to free him, Mephisto and his new bride will bring into the world an abomination.”

“The Antichrist,” Johnny murmured. “He’s going to create the Antichrist.”

“Yeah, the Antichrist,” Lilith muttered, lighting up another cigarette. “Right now every demon in Hell is with him. Only his ex-wife and disinherited son stand in his way. And when the new bundle of joy arrives, my son and I will be history.” She squinted at Johnny. “Do you know what it feels like to be killed but still have feeling in your body, and that body is being shredded, dismembered and ripped apart over and over for the rest of eternity? That’s the fate which awaits me if Mephisto succeeds. And as for mankind . . . Well, you’ve read Revelations, haven’t you?”

“I’ve read enough.”

“Well, that’s only book one of volume one in a series ten volumes long with ten books per volume. Believe me, it gets a lot more interesting. Revelations was just a goddamn prologue compared with what’s to come.”

Johnny ran a hand through his hair and leaned on the counter. “Well,” he said, “that was a nice little story, but I don’t see how a Ghost Rider could possibly help you. This is Hell we’re talking about, not a gang of thieves or drug dealers. The power of Zarathos could never stand up to Mephisto, not in his own realm.”

“I’m not asking you to fight mano a mano with Mephisto,” Lilith snapped. “I’m asking you to free my son. You possess the power of hellfire, the only thing capable of melting the infernal ice that is holding Atrocor captive. I’m barred from descending any further than the Seventh Circle; while the cat’s out tomcatting, the mice are at the mercy of his whims.”

“So . . . Essentially you’re telling me to go to Hell.”

“Yes.”

“To free your son.”

“Yes.”

“Who tried to kill me many times and to whom I owe nothing.”

Lilith was silent, expressionless.

“Look,” Johnny muttered, “I don’t have to do shit for you. I know now to hunt down Mephisto and make sure he doesn’t knock up anyone with the Antichrist, and that’s the only job that concerns me.”

“You’ll never find him without my help,” Lilith growled.

“I don’t need your help.”

“I’ll see you as far as the Seventh Circle—no one will touch you!”

“Forget it, lady. I go through hell enough as it is. I don’t need to go through it literally.” Johnny stood from his seat.

“What do you want?” Lilith demanded. “Money? Women? Fame?”

“A little respect would be nice.”

“Anything you want, it’s yours—what do you say?”

“I say goodbye, your majesty. Have a nice reign in Hell.” And Johnny walked out, pausing once he had stepped into the cool air. He looked up at the night sky for a few moments and strode then to his bike. He’d just mounted it when Lilith stormed out, the door cracking on its hinges and her face dark with anger.

“What do I have to do to get you to understand how apocalyptic these events could be? If you don’t find Mephisto then we’re all doomed—you, me, Atrocor—”

“No offense, Lilith, but your son is a prick and I don’t care if he stays a popsicle for the rest of eternity.”

Lilith pinched her lips shut, and through the dark Johnny could see the tears welling in her eyes. “You fucking men,” she choked. “You’re all the same. Arrogant, entitled, selfish assholes. I may not be a saint—I’m not even lucky enough to be a sinner—but I know what it means to be a parent, and I love my son, foolish demon that he is. This is not the Queen of Hell standing in front of you, Johnny Blaze—this is a mother begging you to bring her baby back. Please, Johnny . . .” With reluctant humility, Lilith lowered herself to her knees in the dust, and took hold of Johnny’s pant leg. “Please help me.”

Johnny looked away. “What will you and Blackheart do if I decide to help you? Where will you go?”

“We’ll leave Hell forever. Never look back.”

“And two powerful demons will be loose in the mortal world.”

“We will be in your debt—we’ll never harm another human soul.”

Johnny had to laugh at that. “Blackheart would never agree to that.”

“I’ll make him agree. He is my son, after all. He has to listen to his mother.”

“He never really struck me as a mama’s boy.”

“Trust me, he is.”

Johnny grinned. It would be perfectly righteous to bring back that little shit just so he could laugh at him for the rest of his life. And Blackheart wouldn’t be able to do a damned thing about it. Literally.

He kicked his bike to life and yelled over the roar, “You got a ride?”

“No.”

Johnny jerked his head toward the back of his bike. “Hop on, mama. We’ll get your son back.”

A few minutes later a trail of fire burned down the dark desert highway in the wake of a roaring chopper.



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