Bruce had been adjusting to his now semi-balanced life quite well now, and things were really looking up.
General Ross was almost starting to trust him, he and Betty were going to get engaged, and according to Mephisto, the Juggernaut business had been the most pressing of his concerns. Meaning, therefore, that there wasn't much work for him.
Sadly, Bruce knew enough about Murphy's Law (and from his own experience) that something very, very bad was going to happen.
Worse still, he was proven right about a month after he sold his soul to Mephisto.
Watching a random show on T.V., Bruce was startled to see a "BREAKING NEWS" bulletin flash across the screen.
As it switched to footage of New York City, Bruce was even more apalled when he saw a huge path of destruction that appeared to have been caused by something relatively big, and with brute strength.
Something like the Hulk.
If he were anyone else, that's the conclusion he'd have come to.
There was only one problem with that assessment: the Hulk was completely under control, and hadn't been let out since the day that Bruce had shown Betty and Rick that it was under control.
This meant that someone else had found a way to get the power of the Hulk.
This presented a problem that had to be dealt with, and quickly. His fears were only confirmed when there were eyewitness reports of a creature that had looked almost exactly like the Hulk, but had been colored red.
A Red Hulk—Bruce wondered if the madness in his life would ever end.
That was when Ross asked to see him, effectively answering with a resounding no.
"What is it?"
Ross sighed as he said, "What I am about to tell you is strictly classified—even more so than the gamma bomb data. Before you gained control of the Hulk, we decided that you were too great of a threat for you to live. But as you know, once you became the Hulk, you were unable to be stopped. So we created the only thing that would be able to stop you: another Hulk. But while you transformed due to anger and lost your mind, our Hulk was permanently transformed—and he retained his mental faculties. Also, where your transformation is green, the other Hulk turned red. But… we discovered that you could control the Hulk just weeks after the Red Hulk—Rulk, for short—was created. We cut him loose… and apparently, he wasn't too happy about that."
His eyes glowing green—a sign of just how angry Bruce was at the moment—he asked, "So because you of your desperation to get rid of the Hulk, you created a monster that's even worse?!"
Slamming his hands on the table, Bruce asked, "Did it never occur to you that the Hulk might never have emerged if people just left him alone?! Did you not realize that it was always you hunting ME, and never the other way around? Whenever you and your war dogs found me, I did what I could to keep you from killing me, and then I ran away! And yet, you always continued hunting me! But when the media found out, I was portrayed as the villain! So tell me now, Ross: who's the victim?!"
Bruce's rant cut deeply into the general, because he knew in his heart that every word was absolutely true—he deserved whatever happened to him because of Rulk.
In fact, Ross blamed himself for the gamma blast that had turned Banner into the Hulk; and thus, he believed that all of the deaths caused in his pursuit of the Hulk—both his own soldiers and collateral damage—were on his hands.
"And that is exactly why I have to ask you to help me correct my mistake. Since you gained control over the Hulk, I did some soul-searching. I've told myself the same things that you just did a thousand times, damned myself even more than that. I'm a greater menace to humanity than you ever were, Banner—Bruce. Rulk is nearly as unstoppable as you are, but with one major difference: when you get angrier, it makes you stronger. For the Red Hulk, however, it causes him to generate more heat into the surrounding area. Hopefully, if you can make him angry enough, you'll cause him to overheat, at which point you would be able to defeat him."
Infuriated that he was being manipulated in such a way, but unable to allow more innocent people to get hurt, Bruce stormed out of the building. His eyes still blazing emerald green, no one dared stand in his way.
He didn't want to turn into the Hulk, so he didn't. But when he was angry, however, his eyes would still turn green proportionately to his rage.
It was an indicator of just how short his proverbial fuse actually was.
As soon as he was in the open air, he got on his recently-purchased motorcycle, started it up, and flew off like a bat out of hell.
Riding towards New York (Rulk's last known location; hopefully, he could get someone like Wolverine to help him track the bastard) for roughly three hours at well over the legal speed limit, it was about midnight when he felt it—the sudden pain inside his skull that signaled Mephisto's presence.
Slowing down and pulling off to an abandoned warehouse, Bruce allowed the transformation to activate.
His head burst into flames, burning away the flesh, and hair, every nerve ending until there was only the grinning face of the Ghost Rider.
He'd had to do more jobs as the Devil's Bounty Hunter from time to time, but not often—usually, Mephisto let either Johnny Blaze or Daniel Ketch handle it.
"Ah, Bruce. How've you been?"
Irritated, he replied, "I'm trying to find and take down the Red Hulk, so just tell me what the job is so I can get it over with and go back to what I was doing."
"Ah, but Rulk is your job, Bruce. He did a lot of bad things when he was still human—he was a U.S. Army Spec. Ops officer guilty of more crimes than I have time to list, when he was offered a chance at being pardoned in exchange for undergoing a test program that would, in theory, make him strong enough to kill the Hulk. Since he's no longer needed, he's gone berserk and is even worse than before. I'm simply going to tell you that he isn't in New York anymore—he just did that to get your attention. Now, however, he's going to challenge you to a public fight in L.A. My only real stipulation here is this: when you fight him, first beat him down so he'll learn his place. And when it comes time to kill him, use the Penance Stare. By all rights, his soul is mine."
Deciding that all in all, this was as good of a development as any, Bruce nodded, got astride his hell-cycle, and turned around, now heading for Los Angeles.
With a warehouse full of hostages, the Red Hulk demanded that the Hulk come and allow himself to die, or else Rulk would start killing. Nobody could even get close to him, since the surrounding area was over 50 degrees above the rest of L.A.
It was around midnight, and Rulk had threatened that unless Banner arrived in another few minutes, he'd start killing hostages.
And right on time, a raging green giant roared into the area, trying to pummel Rulk into submission. However, just as Ross said, the angrier Rulk got, the more heat he started creating, until the asphalt beneath the titans' feet began to melt and evaporate.
Managing to get a powerful blow to the face in, Rulk briefly dazed the Hulk as he picked up and threw him fifty-odd feet away.
Getting back to his feet, the Hulk resumed grappling with Rulk as he demanded, "What the hell is your problem, private?! Just where the fuck do you get off trying to kill innocent people?!"
Partially caught off guard by Banner's profanity, Rulk momentarily faltered in the struggle, and Bruce pushed him back.
However, as the continually building heat began wearing down Banner's own concentration, the red giant regained his ground. (A/N: Try saying that five times fast, I dare ya.)
Rulk replied, "It's all your fault, Banner! I had damn near everything and was just about ready to kill you when you finally fucking learned how to control the Hulk! I would've been cleared of everything if it wasn't for you! All I have left anymore is my power and the rage of the Red Hulk!!"
Then, with a savage roar, Rulk picked Banner up off of the ground, slammed him brutally on his knee hard enough to snap a five-foot-thick steel girder in two, and then slammed him into the ground, forming a crater fifty feet wide and twenty feet deep.
However, a bright green-and-red flash blinded Rulk and everyone else in the area, and when it subsided, there no longer stood the 7-foot Hulk.
Now, there was a massive skeleton ten feet tall, covered fully in luminescent green flames as words were spoken in a horrible voice: "Vengeance will flow through my body!"
Grinning like a monster from Hell, the flaming monster said pointed at Rulk and said two words that sealed the Red Hulk's fate: "You. Guilty."
Now running faster than the Hulk ever could, the Hulk-Rider lunged at Rulk, pinning him to the wall as he said, "Look into my eyes. Your soul is stained with the blood of innocents. Feel the agony they suffered at your hands."
And thus, Rulk's body turned to a pile of solidified sulfur as his soul was destroyed by the Penance Stare.
Breaking the stone sculpture apart with a quick jerk of his arm, the Hulk-Rider gave a savage roar of victory before the gamma-mutated Hellfire began to wane, reverting him into the Hulk, and finally, to Bruce Banner.
As he fell unconscious from exhaustion, the last thing he saw before darkness claimed him was Betty's face….