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Chapter One

Wildfire, The Rise of a Hero

     The building burned like a tinderbox.

     The flames were relentless, the heat stole Abigail’s breath. The fire blazed into an all-consuming monster, turning the apartments into pyres. Its ravenous hunger burned through the floors, broke through locked doors, gnawed its way deeper inside the complex. The blazing monster didn’t notice the feeble counter attack from outside. It was too preoccupied with consuming everything in its way. Furniture. Photos. Appliances. Clothes. Nothing satisfied it.

     Abigail ran toward it. She followed the flames deep inside the building to the central units where fire crews had been unable to access safely. Curious flames licked against her skin, but Abigail paid them no mind. Adrenalin pulsed through her veins, allowing no room for fear to distract her.

     A hero saves people, and that was Abigail’s only goal.

     Abigail followed the monster into a windowless bedroom. Through the smoke, she saw someone huddled in a corner. She rolled across the room, snatching the boy in her arms before the fire decided he would be a better meal than the toys it was consuming on the floor. Abigail tore her golden cape from her shoulders and draped it over the boy.

     “I’m getting you out of here!” she shouted over the flame’s roar. “Whatever happens, do not let go.”

The boy nodded under the blanket and tightened his arms around her neck. Abigail carried him through the flames, down three stories, and out the front door. The fire burned around them but couldn’t touch the boy under the cape’s fire-retardant material. The flames tried to grab Abigail but couldn’t grip her skin or costume. Once outside, the snapping sound of fire was replaced by the hissing of water striking baking brick. The roar of the flames was replaced by the roar of a crowd.

     Abigail uncovered the boy, watching him take his first gulp of clean air. His mouth and nose were coated in black ash, and she used a gloved finger to wipe it off. A gurney rolled beside her, and Abigail set the boy down and reattached her cape to the clasps on her shoulders.

     “You’re safe now.” She smiled at him while a paramedic covered his mouth with an oxygen mask. “You’re going to be A-okay.”

     Tears fell from the boy’s eyes, leaving rivers of clean skin under the ash and soot still clinging to his face. The oxygen mask fogged as he tried to speak, but his words were lost in the noise around them. Abigail squeezed his shoulder and returned to her battle.

     With the apartments empty of civilians, the firefighters were able to fully unleash their water cannons. Smoke poured from the building, the blaze refusing to give up so easily. Glass shattered from the higher floors as a heatwave forced its way out. Black, putrid smoke oozed from the highest floor.

     “Inferna!” a gruff voice shouted at her from the front line. The man was also dressed in costume instead of the firefighter’s dark gray turnout gear. “Take this line inside. I’m going to vent the roof.”

     “Yes, sir!” Abigail grabbed the water hose and ran back into the building.

     Abigail worked her way to the back of the apartment complex, killing the blaze in corners the firefighters couldn’t reach from the outside. Although terrifying at first, this tactic had become second nature to the young sidekick. With her fireproof body, she could help douse the fire from within while the firefighters remained outside and away from the danger. The building heaved around her as her crime-fighting partner, Volcanic, vented the roof. The flames were pulled up violently, like dust bunnies into a vacuum. Abigail doused the remaining fire spouts and the stubborn embers clinging to baseboards and hiding behind doors.

     Fighting fires wasn’t their only job description, but it was the reason the heroes had been dubbed The Fire Killers.

     Abigail emerged from the building after snuffing out the remaining flames. The complex was now a soggy mess, but the monster had taken no lives. That was a victory for all the heroes. Super and ordinary. Volcanic leapt down from the roof, landing next to his sidekick. The pair were dressed similarly, like many heroes and sidekicks. Volcanic’s navy and orange bodysuit was made of the same fire-repellent material as Abigail’s costume and cape. He wore dark grey gloves, boots, and a half-face mask that covered his eyes. Really, though, he should have covered his permanent scowl.

     Rated the number one solo hero in San Arbor for the last five years, Volcanic was powerful, fast, and possessed unrivaled flame abilities. Crime in the city had dropped eight percent in his first year, and the decrease had been steady ever since.

     Volcanic was a perfect crime-stopper, but he was not a perfect hero. At least not in the eyes of media reports and tabloids.

     When reporters entered the scene, their cameras focused on Abigail, her red and blue costume easy to find in the quieting chaos. The sidekick’s costume resembled the style of 80’s comic book heroes. The red skirt swirled around her knees with each step, and the blue top matched her blue ankle boots. She waved to the civilian crowd, who were obeying the first responders’ barricade, before turning to the reporters.

     “What can you tell us about this tragedy?” one reporter asked, his puffy microphone pressed against Abigail’s nose.

     “How did the fire start?”

     “Could it have been put out sooner?”

     The reporters fired off questions as quickly as a boxer’s fist, geared to leave the interviewee winded and weakened enough to make a mistake in front of the cameras. If a hero couldn’t handle the rating-hungry reporters, they would be knocked down like the villains they fought. Thankfully, this was a skill that Abigail listed on her resume.

     “Today isn’t a sad day,” Abigail declared with a wide smile. Volcanic loomed two steps behind her with his arms crossed. “We were honored to be called by the fire chief to help with this incident. Together we saved everyone inside. This building will be rebuilt, and these homes will be restored. As for the cause of the fire, that is under investigation.”

     “Do you think it was the work of a villain?”

     Abigail shook her head at the reporter, her blonde curls bouncing like she had stepped out of the salon instead of a burning building. “It’s too soon to tell, but we do not believe so. I’m sure it’s something as explainable as a—”

     “What if it’s the Flame Villain from before?”

     “Do you have comments on his possible residency in San Arbor?”

     “Will the Fire Killers be able to stop him if he is here?”

     Abigail reached for her neck out of habit but stopped herself. A dark purple burn scar in the shape of a hand disfigured her flesh. Its four fingers wrapped possessively around her throat. That Flame Villain had been the only thing to ever penetrate her fireproofing. She refused to have the scar removed until he had been defeated.

     “If that villain is here then he will be stopped,” Abigail growled. She regained her composure as the boy she had saved ran over to her. Scooping him up, Abigail wiped a piece of ash off his cheek.

     “Thank you for saving me.” The boy’s voice came out scratchy.

     Abigail tightened her arms around him, she heard cameras clicking from the crowd. “You were super brave in there! Maybe you could be a hero one day too.”

     “Like you?”

     “Like us.” Abigail caught Volcanic’s gaze and motioned him toward her.

     The hero, clearly annoyed, knelt to be eye level with the boy. Abigail smiled. The boy smiled. Volcanic didn’t frown.

     “We’re burning up!” the three of them chanted the Fire Killers’ motto, the ending punctuated with giggles from the boy.

     The camera lights clicked off, and the reporters vanished into their news trucks to finish their stories before the five o’clock newscast. There was no doubt this event would be the top story. The crowd thinned out once the danger and media storm were over, and the firefighters ventured into the building’s remains to start their investigation. Abigail lowered the boy to the ground and waved to him as he returned to his family’s side.

     The popularity was a bonus of being a hero. The true joy was saving people.

     “That was incredible!” A lanky man approached Abigail with a clipboard. He was younger than her by a few years, and she wondered if there was still time for his body to catch up to his long limbs. His costume mask, made to look like diving gear, hung around his neck. “I have your times recorded, but I couldn’t keep up with the body count—”

     “That’s what you call dead people, Flipps,” Abigail corrected the intern. She tugged his mask back over his eyes. It was lop-sided now. “Call them ‘saved,’ and we rescued six. The other seven residents were able to evacuate, and the remaining ten weren’t home.”

     Flipps scribbled on the paper attached to his clipboard before adjusting his mask. “This thing is so itchy.”

“Take it to Diane in costumes. She can fix it for you.”

     “Do you think it’s true?” Flipps whispered. “Do you think the Flame Villain is here?”

     Abigail sighed. “Has anyone seen him? Besides this—” she pointed at the charred building behind her “—has there been any arson-related attacks?”

     “No, but—”

     “No one has seen that villain in two years. It’s a shame that he wasn’t caught then, but that doesn’t mean he’s stalking San Arbor again.”

     Abigail wanted to curse his name but saying it aloud would give him credit. He would remain nameless to her. He would remain obsolete, a pest she would exterminate.

     Flipps abruptly straightened, and Abigail heard his breath hitch.

     “Get the car,” Volcanic ordered.

     “Y-yes, sir!” Flipps tried to salute his boss, but the movement resulted in the kid slapping his head with the clipboard. He ran off.

     “You could be a little nicer,” Abigail criticized.

     Volcanic glared down at her from his mountainous height. “If he’s scared of me he’ll never make a good hero.”

     “He’s just here for the summer intern program. He wants to be a swim coach, not a hero.”

     “Then he should have interned at a pool.”

     It was Abigail’s turn to glare. Volcanic really didn’t have much of a high horse to sit on. In his first five years as a hero in a neighboring city, he had destroyed most of the underground gang activities, but, using such violent methods, some people had confused him for a villain. Tabloid reporters claimed he was the true leader of the gangs and drug trades. True to his name, Volcanic burnt down an interview set with an agitated blast when he was supposed to address the rumors.

     The rumors quit, mostly out of fear, and he started working in San Arbor a year later.

     “You could have moved a little faster rescuing the kid,” he grumbled.

     “He’s safe,” she reminded. “They’re all safe. Hopefully, that will increase your ratings.”

     “That’s not why we do this.” Volcanic crossed his arms.

     “No, but that’s why your company hired me.” Abigail adjusted her cape, trying to keep as much of her scar hidden as she could. “Every hero’s a celebrity now, and people eat that up. The line between hero and villain can be swayed by just one badly edited viral video.”

     “I told you never to bring that up,” he growled.

     “Sorry,” she muttered half-heartedly. “Should we get back to HQ?”

     “For more training,” Volcanic decided. “You were sloppy today.”

     Abigail rolled her eyes but didn’t protest. They waited in silence for Flipps to bring their car around. She chewed the inside of her cheek. “What if he is back?”

     “You stick to our plan.”

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