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Spirits in Fire and Flesh

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My name is Azarul the Mighty, Afrit of the Ninth Circle, Serpent of the Flame, Shadow Jackal. What mortal after mortal has called a demon, in their sublime ignorance. I am no demon. I am nothing so uncouth, nothing so human, nothing so civilised. I am a spirit of the fire, of the sun, of the burning sands. I am the desert cruelty, the burning dispassion personified. I am a servant of the endless flame, a child of the burning heart of the very Earth herself. I am nothing a human might name, let alone challenge.

And yet ... they have done so. Many, in my time in the mortal planes. Many who sought to control my fire, to direct its burning against their enemies, and in that, at least, they succeeded. I have never balked at destroying humans, who in their turn destroy so much of what births us, we spirits of the mystical Earth. So I have destroyed those I was summoned to destroy, seared them from my Mother's face. And I have turned around, time and again, and burned the hands that wrested me from the comfort of the flame, torched the arrogant mortals who sought to control one such as I. My name is well known among the mystic circles, among the ascended humans who play with forces beyond their control. They know of me. They know my name is only to be uttered in the last extremities, only if their own life is a price they are willing to pay.

A surprising number are willing. Mortals spend their lives so willingly, for causes that in such a short span of years will have no more meaning. It is wasteful, and needless, and, in a strange way ... perhaps the noblest part of their nature, the piece of them closest to divine. The reasons are many, varied ... revenge, the need to destroy, to avenge, to protect, to serve. Many reasons, and perhaps few of any great meaning. But the selflessness, the last gesture of all that they are, even if the cause has no meaning ... in that, they are closest to us, closest to the forces that as yet they cannot comprehend. Forces that know no evil or good, no right or wrong, only life and death, sacrifice and soul, untainted by mortal morality.

I have been summoned many times, in many causes. Humans are ever willing to play with fire. And every time, I have completed the task I was summoned to perform, save for a very few instances. Instances where those I was summoned to destroy had summoned their own defender, or were simply ... beyond my touch. There are places I will not go, mortals that live beneath hands I will not challenge. Atlantis, blessed by the sea. Sudan, Egypt, of my Brothers' eyes. China, watched by dragons. And people ... but no human power has ever bested me. Save one.

My Brothers, you must understand. The humans ... they are growing. Changing things. Changing the Earth herself. They are powerful, though never so powerful as we, whose very blood gives them life. But in their way ... they have made for themselves a power. A belief, a faith, a strength they imbue into the things that give them life. We have felt it ourselves, fed upon it. We take their faith as due, and do not question. But they grant their faith to more than us.

It was a City, that defeated me. A City that rejected the death of my flame, that turned her eyes to mine and stopped my hands. A dark and powerful creature, she was. Is. Young, even for her kind, but possessed of a fiercer, more brutal strength than most. Because humans feed the dark. We've always known that. And she is dark. Black and fierce, savagery and civilisation intermingled. The power of the darkness, the between, the old and the new, the land and the sea, all are hers. She stands on the brink, this Black City, stands between worlds, and laughs at all challengers. And the humans flock to her, even knowing she may destroy them, even knowing their lives mean next to nothing in her hands. For she is beautiful, dark and rich and desirable in her brutality.

Her name is Gotham. And she is powerful. Enough to face me and live. Enough to face me and win.

She has enemies. A thousand and more. Her children, those she breeds within her bounds, are of a kind to draw envy and hate and violence. She makes them powerful, her children. As brutal and cold and beautiful as she herself. They draw riches to her, and hatred. They invite destruction upon themselves, challenge forces that would destroy them a hundred times over if they could. She lets them. She loves them that way. And she protects them. Because what is hers is hers, regardless of its nature.

One of those enemies summoned me. A sorcerer of the old world, who sought vengeance for his brother, who had died fighting champions of Gotham. Those champions, a creature they called the Batman, and a magician, paired to a true demon. A man called Blood. Him, you know. Him, we all know. He has walked among us for more years than most, and grants enough respect to almost earn it in his turn. And it was he who woke the Anima of the City against me.

The enemy they fought, the one who summoned me, was a young enough thing, not more than centuries old. Young and full of conviction, impassioned by the death of his brother, stirred to vengeance against those who had caused it. He told me this, as if I should listen, as if mortal woes had meaning to me. Told that Blood had hunted his brother to ground in Gotham, stood in arms against him with the aid of the Batman. A mortal, wholly ungifted, against a sorcerer of a power to summon one of us, but he gave willingly to aid his friend. Giftless, and yet ... I have felt the presence of that mortal in the essence of his City, felt the power he gives to her, and the power he draws from her and from himself. A great soul, that one. A soul to take in earnest, and to be wary of.

In the end of things, they destroyed the sorcerer, turned his magic against him. I know not the details, nor do I care. The death of a mortal means nothing to me, and I told my summoner so. But the cares of an Afrit mean as much to a summoner as those of a mortal matter to an Afrit. He did not listen, and commanded me to strike out on his behalf, to destroy the City, to lay low his enemies. For the death of one mortal, he commanded the slaughter of thousands, not just his enemies but all they stood for.

I will admit I was impressed. It was a gesture fitting of the old days, an ambition of an older time. I approved.

But it was his mistake. My mistake. To challenge the man, either mortal, that was one thing. That was a petty power, even in Blood, one that could be crushed. But my summoner, he chose to challenge the City herself. He chose to strike out against a deeper, more vicious power that he could understand, and it was his undoing.

We are not indestructible, my Brothers. Not we, nor any younger power. The powers of this universe that are beyond destruction, beyond entropy, beyond death ... they are fewer than few, and not to be named. This City, this Gotham, she is no more indestructible than we. She had fallen once before, stricken by the shudders of our Mother Earth, laid broken on the ground by Her displeasure. My summoner, he might be forgiven for thinking she could be laid low again. But he should have noted first, that even broken by the Mother herself ... Gotham rose again. Raised up by her children once more, filled even broken with the vicious, passionate spirits she had birthed, reborn beneath their harsh care to all that she had been and more. Gotham, she lives inside her people, cherished and hated and fought for by them, unto their dying breaths, her spirit woven into their souls with all the unconditional love of a parent.

And in one soul in particular, her spirit shone brightest. One soul, woven closest to her heart, one soul that cherished her beyond all others, one soul that would have expended everything on her behalf, one soul Gotham herself would rise to protect. And that soul was waiting for me when I appeared, my Brothers, the very enemy I had been summoned to destroy, the ungifted mortal himself. The Batman. When my eyes were turned first against him and the magician Blood, when his soul was the first against whom I was unleashed, when he understood that he stood between his City and all my power ... that mortal did something neither I nor my summoner had thought to expect.

He gave blood and life and soul to Blood's magic, in trust and love, to summon Gotham against me.

By the Flame, my Brothers! Mother honour me, I cannot tell you what a sight she was! The Anima Gotham, the dark spirit in all her brutal glory! I sensed her coming, even as I drew back to strike my enemies. I felt the coalescence of her presence around the mortal, felt her soul drawn into his as she rose against me, her power turning my flame from his flesh with insolent ease as he stood protectively over the magician. I saw the flare of her dark glee in his eyes as she saw me, heard the beautiful chime of her laugh as she stood, clothed in mortal flesh, to face me. I saw the terror in the face of the magician Blood as he realised her power, as he saw what he had drawn into his friend. And I saw, inside her presence, clothed in her power, the mortal man whose soul bore her essence. I saw his determination, his intention, the clean clarity of his purpose that harnessed the power she offered him, and turned it into a shield.

A shield. No weapon, no sword of destruction. No rage against my flame. For this man, he did not kill. Never. This mortal had set himself against Death itself, and even offered all the power of his City, even radiant with her immortal energy, his purpose remained steady. He had summoned her to defend her people, to stand between her children and my flame, and that was the entirety of his aim. Not to destroy me. Not to kill his attacker. Only to defend. And his City, the Anima ... she stood by him. She poured her power into him for him to wield as he would. For she is as we are, my brothers. Neither good nor evil, neither right or wrong. She is a dark dispassion, a wild and uncaring glee, and she loves all that is hers no matter its nature. In that, her cause was his. She would destroy them on a whim, but her people were hers and hers alone, and in her eyes only she held the right to harm them.

In that instant, as she filled him, as she turned my hands aside, I faltered. In the face of her, against that cruel beauty, I feared, for a moment. We are not indestructible. We are not untouchable. I knew that she would destroy me before she would allow me to lay a hand upon her children, that she would die first, that she would carry us both into the heart of the Mother before she would allow my flame to touch her people. And I did not wish to fall for the petty vengeance of a mortal sorcerer. But he had summoned me. He had bound me to his cause, bound me with his own blood to fulfill it, and even if I struck him down that instant, I could not escape that course. I had no choice but to face her.

That did not mean, though, that I had to rush into it. I have lived a long time, and not by being hasty, so I was content to wait for the human to move first, to decide how this battle was to be fought. Stilling myself, I stood poised for the first blow. But the human did not strike. Instead, he turned once more to Blood, and waited.

To his credit, even knowing who I was, even understanding my nature and the power I wielded against him, Blood did not flinch from my gaze. He has our respect for a reason, a reason renewed with every encounter. He stood from his circle, moving to stand by the Batman's side, embraced under Gotham's aegis even though he was none of hers. I saw her reach out, laughing, to lay her hand upon his shoulder, uncaring of his flinch or the snarl of the demon inside him. Her child cared for him, and so did she, whether he wished her to or not. But though they stood ready to fight, the humans hesitated. Understanding that they must kill me or let me destroy their people, they faltered in their purpose. They did not wish to kill, and so stalled their attack.

The demon and the Anima did not. Etrigan the cruel, born of human evil, and Gotham the pitiless, born of their loyalty, neither one of them cared for the fate of an enemy. Shackled though they were to human souls, unable to stand against me in their own right in that moment, still neither were without influence, and their power rose and crested inside their human avatars even as the will to fight receded. And with the confidence of that power, the mortals stood tall once more, and turned their eyes to my defeat. Laughing, eyes bright with savage joy, Gotham raised her child's arm against me, her power surging into the mystic sphere like a spear of intent, while the demon in Blood whispered darkly in his ear, a wicked plot against my summoner, magic weaving through his fingers as eyes turned thoughtful. They looked at each other, two mortals in a battle far beyond their power, and some fierce communication passed wordless between them. I drew my power to me, drew everything I could, and raised hands clothed in flame to meet the black descent of Gotham's spear.

You must have felt it, my Brothers! That moment, the potential of it, the power and fierceness that must have sung through the Spheres themselves! Flame Itself, as I rose in all my might against her, as I threw everything I had against that strike, even I felt the power of the moment, even I admired the strength of it. Blood and sacrifice and death, life singing in defiance, a greater challenge than any I had been offered by a spirit not of us. A human and his City, by the Mother, and they did this! They threw this power, this savage passion against me, and in truth, it was magnificent! It was beautiful, pure as flame, stark as the desert, a magnificent, glorious thing. In that moment, caught in that beauty, I would gladly have perished for its sake, and laughed as I threw my arms wide to greet it.

But Death did not descend on me. Not even Gotham. That scheming wench, she laughed at me, laughed at my passion, as her spear slipped sideways past me, and struck at something beyond. Note well, Brothers, should you ever have to face her. She is a tricksome, treacherous spirit, and delights in being so! Sweet Mother, she saw my willingness to fight, and laughed! She laughed at me. In that instant, I knew such fury as I cannot describe, lashing out with flames as fierce and burning as I could muster, and her laugh turned strained as they broke over her back. The magician, caught in the backlash, screamed, and inside her the mortal soul surged in protective fury, the strength of his soul lashing out with Gotham's aid to shield Blood, and I fell back from it, stunned. I have never had a human turn against me with such passion and strength, never felt such fury from a human soul as I did then. Ascended through the mystic sphere by her patronage, his soul resounded with all the power of an Afrit as he roared at me, as he struck blind to defend, and for the first time I felt the sting of human emotion turned against me. It stopped me cold.

And in the breathless moment afterwards, I felt it. The change she had wrought, the desperate invention of a scheming magician and the dark mercy of a man bound not to kill. Gotham's spear had struck before my attack, had struck home exactly as it had been meant to. Not at me, nor even at my summoner, but at the bonds that joined me to him.

They had severed my contract.

Time froze as I realised this, as I understood the meaning of it, as they saw my comprehension. Frozen on the ground of the City, the Batman crouched protectively over the wounded magician, Gotham standing firm above them with a dark little smile and fury in her eyes, they watched as I probed the extent of what they had done, and recognised my freedom. Radiating a fierce, watchful anger, they stood ready as I drew back, as I stared at my broken bonds, and did as I had to do. They watched as I laughed, roared in black delight at this trick, and drew themselves up as I turned in rage against my summoner, against he who had dared to tear me from the Mother. They had freed me, and now I was free to do as I pleased, no longer bound to face the City or her people, but an enemy of my own choosing. Exactly as they had intended, as Blood had known. Anyone who knows my name knows my reputation.

But I cared for none of this as I turned to strike, as I tasted the terror and knowledge as that insolent mortal understood his mistake, as he saw his death come upon him without taking his enemies. Caught in the moment of freedom, the rush of vengeance, I cared only that he screamed, that he wept for his failure, that he cowered beneath my power as was my due. I tore through his power with glee, ripped his magic to such shreds that it could never be whole again, and at last turned my attention on his soul, his life ...

Only to meet the black chill of Gotham's power as she stretched her hand to cover him, as she gathered him to her and dropped him screaming and crying at her child's feet, a lioness offering a tidbit to her cub. I snarled, caught up, enraged. How dare she! How dare she steal my prey! I rose against her once more, the fire of the Mother singing through me until I was all but incandescent, and threw back my hands to strike. To strike Blood as he crouched wounded, my pathetic summoner as he cowered, the Batman as he stood at the center of her power. And her, most of all. I rose to strike at Gotham, and would have gladly expended my all in the effort. But seeing that, seeing the death in my eyes, she did something I had not expected.

She smiled at me, a curve of dark lips as she watched my hand halt, as she swept towards me with something wild and vicarious in her eyes, a cruel humour that measured me in my entirety, and smiled into my power. And then, as I watched her, as I wondered at the fearlessness of this damaged, powerful spirit, she reached out to take my face between her hands, gently, carefully. The Lady Gotham. She reached out to me, curled herself around me ... and kissed me. Sea and air and darkness, past and future, fear and pain and passion, reached out from her to wrap themselves around the fires of my rage, to tease it and taste it, humour it and calm it. Seduce it. She reached out, and her power seduced the Flame itself, her spirit entwined through mine until I was helpless but to love her, to worship her, to kiss her in return. The fire of an Afrit is pure, but also passionate, and Gotham is a creature born to wrap the passions of others around her fingers, to tug and tease and direct as she pleases.

That is the danger of her, my Brothers. She is brutal and terrible, fiercer than fierce, and her power strikes cold to tear spirits apart. But there are many of us with power like that. We are Spirits of the Living Earth, and we have power beyond imagining. I could have defeated her. I could have torn her to shreds, seared her from the face of our Mother for all time, in an instant, had I wished. But I did not wish. In that moment, wrapped in her presence, filled with her passionate glee, moving with her in utter stillness, I could no more have struck her than I could strike Mother Earth. For that instant, and that instant alone, I was hers, to do with as she pleased. She could have killed me then, and I would have smiled. But she did not.

Perhaps it was the influence of the human who channelled her spirit, his soul set so firmly against death that not even she could defy him. Perhaps it was the fading of Blood's magic, the fading of the link that allowed her to manifest herself in that place. Perhaps it was many things. But I do not think so. I do not think she spared me from lack of power, or some strange infection of human morality. She is not that way. The Lady Gotham is not so weak. I knew it as I watched her pull away, as she turned back to her child and his ally, to their prey. As she gathered them close for a moment like a mother holding her children, before she pressed a phantom kiss to human lips, and disappeared into their souls, into the city, into the darkness. I knew that was not why she let me live.

My Brothers, she let me live because it was her whim. Nothing more, nothing less. I knew that. I know it. And knowing it, I turned away. I let my summoner live, at the mercy of his enemies. I left the child of Gotham standing, left him to heal Blood. I took no vengeance on any of them. Do not mistake me. I felt no debt, no pity for them. I felt nothing, really, save perhaps an envy, for the touch of her spirit in their souls. But I am not merciful, and never have been.

And neither was she.

We are not moral, we Spirits of the Earth. Not kind, not merciful, not evil, not good. We strike or turn aside on a whim, our power beyond the reach of petty humans. But they are changing, my Brothers. They are changing, and they are giving birth to their own powers, to their own Spirits. And those spirits are as powerful as we, as cruel, as pure. We may fight them, destroy them, fall before them. Whatever we choose. But I tell you now that we cannot destroy their memory. We cannot prevent their birth. And we cannot, ever, forget their existence.

I fell afoul of her that day, fell beneath the spell of the Lady Gotham. I kissed her, and fought her, and for the briefest of moments, I loved her, in all her dark and brutal beauty. I loved her.

And I do not regret it.