The streets of New Orleans were nearly deserted. Once, this would have been an anomaly, but it was now a weekly occurrence. Every Friday the city left their jobs and homes to come together.
El turned the corner onto Sugar Bowl Drive, her head down and her hands in the pockets of tight, torn jeans. Even in the muggy heat, she wore a grey hooded sweatshirt. Her dark hair was pulled up into a bun, and her tanned skin smoldered like embers. She was heading towards the Superdome, following a muted roar.
It was the roar of an entire city, emanating from the massive stadium, which had been expanded to hold hundreds of thousands. What was it that could bring the entire city together? It wasn’t football, not anymore. The war had changed things.
All men are created equal. It was the mantra of a nation, and the nation held on to it so tightly that they hadn’t known what to do when it simply wasn’t true. Superhumans had arrived, and humans were forced to accept the existence of superior beings. They hadn’t taken it well.
Superhumans lost the war badly and now fought each other for the amusement of the victors. The entire city turned out to watch the bloodbath. It was slaughter for sport on a scale unseen since Rome.
The guards at the entrance looked up from their burgers as El approached them. One was short and round, the other just as round, but much taller. They looked surprised, thinking that everyone in the city would already be inside.
“Stop there,” the short one said, pulling a small device from his belt.
“What’s wrong?” A wisp of smoke escaped El’s mouth as she spoke. She was still working on controlling that.
“Nothing’s wrong,” he assured her. He obviously didn’t see her as a threat. After all, what did he have to fear from a slight, twenty year old girl? “We just have to run a quick test to make sure you aren’t one of those freaks. It’s a formality.”
“A test?” El made her voice quaver.
The guard moved his device toward her finger. “I just need a bit of blood, nothing dangerous,” he said. “You have nothing to fear unless you’re one of those monsters.” He chuckled. “You aren’t a monster, are you?”
Her answer was to attack, ripping out his throat as her fingers grew into deadly claws. He fell with a gurgle and didn’t move again.
The second guard was quick enough to draw his gun, a scream tearing itself from his lips as the bullet left the barrel. The bullet struck her directly between the eyes. El shook her head to clear the ringing, and plunged her claws into his heart.
El felt her forehead where the bullet had struck her. The scales that had formed to protect here were iron gray and iron hard, and they began to fade even as her fingers brushed them. She focused, and they returned, spreading across her body. Within seconds, her skin had been completely replaced with the steely scales. I’m getting better; it only took a few seconds this time. When El had first gotten her powers, the scales had only appeared when she was about to be hit, but she had practiced, and could transform all the time now.
The short guard’s radio crackled to life. “What was that, Sanders?”
El mimicked his deep voice as she replied. “Accidental discharge, everything’s fine.”
“Be more careful, or you’ll be stuck on sewage duty next week.”
The man on the other end would have to be stupid to have actually fallen for her imitation, so she hurried through the double doors into the building.
Inside was a gigantic marble statue depicting two superhumans fighting. It towered three stories high, surrounded by the escalators that brought viewers to their seats. El leaped onto the statue and began to climb her way to the top, her claws biting deep into the stone. Crouching at the top, she could hear guards rushing through the doors and their shouts of alarm as they discovered the bodies she had left.
She leaped from the statue and landed on the cold floor of the third story. The blueprints she had memorized earlier said that the VIP boxes would be to her right, so she set off, keeping to the curve of the corridor. One guard passed her, but she killed him before he could make a sound.
Before long, she came to a large arched doorway with the letters VIP stamped above it. A sign beneath those letters read: “Albert Wayne, Mayor of New Orleans”.
El stepped quickly through the archway and came face to face with two more guards. These weren’t the pudgy guards she had seen at the entrance—these men were killers, all hard muscle and precise motions. As soon as she came around the corner they reacted, firing point blank.
Even at the short distance, the bullets bounced harmlessly off of her scales. El allowed a moment for the shock to register on the guard’s faces, then opened her jaws and engulfed them in a torrent of bright flame. Their screams ended quickly, and El stepped over their charred bodies and shoved her way into the VIP suite.
The suite was a wide room with a view over the arena, in which a superhuman in black dodged blows from a massive fighter whose blows left craters in the ground. A row of leather chairs sat empty facing the fight, with a bottle of whiskey spilled across one of them. No Wayne. They must have left in a hurry.
A small door of the left side of the room was left swinging open. If the mayor and his retinue had left when she had killed the guards out front, they would be long gone. Should she just try to make her escape? El had planned to find the mayor in his box. What had she been thinking? Of course he wouldn’t just sit and wait for her to kill him. He would have a contingency plan, somewhere to flee.
Footsteps sounded from the hall outside, and El was forced to act. She ran through the open door after the mayor. There was always the possibility that he hadn’t left until she had attacked the guards outside his suite, and no matter how small that chance was, she was going to act upon it.
The door opened into a small curving corridor that ran behind the other VIP boxes. At each one, El was tempted to stop and kill the people who were cheering for the slaughter of her people, but she kept moving. Her real target was the man who orchestrated the bloodbath, not those who watched it.
She turned through the first open doorway in the corridor, through which she could see a giant marble fist. It was the same room through which she had entered the building. She rushed to the railing and looked down in time to see the mayor, flanked by two guards, rushing towards the double doors on the ground floor. They were followed by a huge man—nearly seven feet tall—who sported a web of scars across his heavy broad shoulders and bare back.
El let out a roar and leapt out over the statue, ready to climb down after her prey.
“The Dragon!” one of the guards cried as he saw her jump. It was the alias that she had been given, like the ones they gave the fighters. She grinned savagely when she heard it. Unlike the captured superhumans, who saw their names as symbols of their slavery, she reveled in hers. It was the name they gave to something feared. She was the hunter. She would land amongst her prey and kill them one by one.
However, as she landed on the marble, it fell away beneath her. It shone with a ruddy light and grew so hot that she could feel it through her scales. It grew bright red, and melted into searing magma. She fell with it, and landed hard in a pool of lava.
The scarred man stood above her, the magma swirling around his feet, his eyes alight and a cruel smile cut across his face. A superhuman! Working for Wayne?
Mayor Wayne stood just outside of the lava with his two guards. “Kill this creature, Ignus,” he said, turning away, “but don’t tire yourself out. Remember, you have a fight in the arena later.”
So one of Wayne’s gladiators also did his dirty work? Ignus stepped forward, and the magma flowed up his body and coalesced in his hand, hardening into a wickedly sharp sword nearly five feet in length. More hardened into greaves and a chestplate as he approached El.
She rose slowly, her side aching from the fall, and unsheathed her claws, all the while looking for a way out. Her clothes had burned away, leaving only her lean, scaled body. She knew immediately that she was at a disadvantage. The scales protected her from the intense heat of the lava, but the molten rock clutched at her legs and prevented her from moving with speed. This wasn’t a fight she could win.
“That man enslaved our kind,” she said, maneuvering towards the door. “He watches us die every day. Why do you serve him?”
“The food is better, for one.” He stomped his foot and a wave of magma cut off her path to the exit.
The heat was reaching unbearable temperatures; even El’s thick scales couldn’t protect her from all of it. She could feel herself growing faint as Ignus closed on her, cutting off all paths to freedom. She breathed fire at him, but he walked unflinchingly through the flame.
El began to panic. There was only one option that remained to her, but she had never managed it after the night she had discovered her powers. But as the heat grew, she realized it may be her only option. She closed her eyes.”
“You don’t want to watch yourself die?” Ignus laughed. “The cowards are all like that at the end.”
She tightened her focus, willed herself to change.
“It won’t save you.”
She couldn’t do it. The heat was only amplified by the sun streaming in through the massive window. It was stifling, burning away her focus.
“It won’t save any of them.”
Flames of anger rose in her hotter than any flame, hotter even than the magma surrounding her, and leathery wings burst from her back, unfurling behind her. She leapt upwards, taking flight and smashing through the window.
Ignus roared, and a tidal wave of lava shot after her before splashing into the street. It barely missed her as she shot into the sky, searching for Wayne. She spotted him and his guards walking towards another entrance to the Superdome. He was returning to watch the fights! Was this man really so confident in Ignus that he would return immediately and so calmly to his entertainment. He and his guards moved with no signs of worry.
She landed among them, a storm of flame and claws, killing the guards in seconds and flinging the mayor into the wall of the dome, cracking the concrete. He tried to climb to his feet but couldn’t, collapsing into a heap.
“This is why your kind needs controlling,” he said.
El didn’t dignify that with a response, instead opening her mouth and bathing him in flame. When all that remained was a charred skeleton and a wide swath of scorched concrete, she took off. She could hear Ingus’s roars over even the roars of the crowd, and that was the sound of victory.