Fall of the PhoenixHawk
Ginger Blaze leapt high up on the metal fire escape, trying hard not to rattle the old metal railings too loudly. She was five floors up, and had a good view around the corner of the old red brick apartment building. Down the alley between the building she was on, and another just like it, a deep crevice in the ground began and grew off into the distance. The fire escape she was on creaked under her slight weight, and dust fell from around huge bolts that held it to the crumbling building.
Further in the distance, Ginger could see where the ground had turned, and twisted. The upheaval that had created the Faults in the ground had torn this section of Paragon City to pieces. Huge chunks of earth sat at odd angles, tipping everything on them over. Many of the taller buildings simply could not stand up to the initial, horrific disturbances and had collapsed in on themselves. Most that had survived the initial quaking still could not hold up to the odd leverage caused by a tall and top heavy structure leaning at severe angles, and thus they snapped like twigs, their upper parts raining debris into the Faults or onto the streets below.
Rescue parties had moved in and tried to save as many of the citizens as they could, many of Paragon City’s Heroes had joined in the relief efforts. Unlike most areas of the city, however, no attempt would be made to revitalize the area now called Faultline. The damage was simply too severe. There was no known way to right the Earth itself after it had been fractured to this extent.
It hadn’t taken long for the gangs that were moving on Paragon city to take up residence in Faultline. The Clockwork King’s minions had proliferated in the area, having found huge, unclaimed and unprotected metal sources in the debris from buildings, the twisted relics that had once been automobiles. The Circle of Thorns had found lines of dark power that ran through the Faults, and those areas they claimed as their own.
It was the Circle that Ginger Blaze had been sent to seek out. Kidnapped victims would be brought into Faultline through underground passages, their blood and souls used to summon Spectral warriors for the Circle’s dark plots. From her perch on the fire escape Ginger could see into the fault, without, she hoped, giving away herself and her teammates. A hundred yards into the fault was a known line of dark power, plotted and recorded by the Magi. Along this unseen line a cloud boiled out of the Fault, boiling with a sickening green glow. Even from her distance, Ginger could feel the pulsing energies being released, but worse, she could hear the screams of a woman rolling out in the cloud. The Circle of Thorn mystics surrounded their ethereal fire, chanting and channeling energy into the inferno. The woman hung suspended in the air, writhing in apparent agony.
Ginger leapt back to the ground, landing amongst the other junior members of the Onami Strike Force. Khazm moved next to her. The Scrapper was slight for the job he did, lean an muscular in his dark costume, his face hidden by a shroud. Behind him was Kwang Ghe, a scientifically engineered Martial Artist with jet black skin and glowing blue eyes. Stars were emblazoned upon his shoulders. A slight woman called Remedy Hart, and Empathic healer with psionic abilities completed the team.
“There are eight of them,” Ginger told the team.
“They are fairly far into the ritual,” came Remedy’s voice in her teammates’ heads. She rarely spoke aloud, but telepathically she could be heard nearly across Paragon City when she wanted to be. “I am not sure we can save this woman.”
“We must try,” Kwang Ghe said. Khazm nodded in agreement.
Ginger and Remedy both agreed as well.
Moving to the lip of the Fault, the heroes gathered. Fifty yards ahead of them the green fire burned, pulsing, sending out shockwaves of dark energy. Khazm could feel the power being used, it tapped into the dark nether where he drew his own strength. Above the fire the woman spun slowly, two Soul Mages working to wrest her soul from her flesh, a Death Mage presiding over them, ready to channel the soul’s energy when released. Nine Thorn Wielders formed the rest of the dark ceremony in a circle around the fire. Some knelt and bowed, adding their own strength to the ritual, others stood, arms waving slowly back and forth over their heads, in time with the pulsating energy.
Kwang Ghe flexed, the rest of his group able to see him about to burst forward at Superspeed. As his body exploded forward in a blur too fast to see, Khazm leapt hard and landed behind one of the Soul Mages, blasting him forward with a full body attack. Kwang Ghe didn’t even slow down before he hit the other Soul Mage, launching a flying kick at Superspeed, the Mage went flying backwards, slamming into the side of the Fault, and dropping over the edge, deeper into the chasm.
The Death Mage reacted first to Khazm, channeling the pulsing energy around him at the hero, knocking him off his feet. The Soul Mage staggered away from the hero, and recovered enough to raise his wand and blast the hero with a beam of sickeningly green energy.
The energy enveloped Khazm, piercing him. Agony burst through his body, his eyes rolled back in his head, his back arched in pain. Remedy Hart suddenly was behind him, her presence soothing, her voice filling his head with quiet calm. A healing aura, the green of fresh leaves spread from her over Khazm. His muscles relaxed, the pain eased, his mind cleared just as the majority of the Thorn Wielders rushed him and the two women.
A Thorn Wielder grabbed Kwang Ghe from behind, raising the Thorn shaped blade that gave the villains their name over his head to strike at the hero. Kwang Ghe’s left foot slammed a side kick into the exposed ribs of the Wielder, sending him flying over the edge of the chasm behind the first Soul Mage. Another Wielder was right on the heels of the first, rushing the hero. Kwang Ghe spun and kicked the minion in the head, and immediately followed with a right foot roundhouse kick to the body that lifted the Wielder up and dropped him unconscious to the ground.
Ginger Blaze, a fire controller who’s strength and control over the element grew daily, clapped her hands loudly, and explosion of tiny embers and ash surrounding the Thorn Wielders, blinding and choking them, allowing the heroes to defeat them one at a time. Remedy was using her psionics to distract the magicians with a mental scream that filled their heads. Several were fighting against the choking ash, others held their hands to their ears shaking their heads back and forth trying to silence the blinding mental noise. Khazm moved amongst the trapped Circle minions, rendering those that had not already dropped from the other attacks quickly and efficiently.
“You’re too late!” The Death Mage screamed over the noise of the raging fire. He laughed loudly as he raised his hands and the fire enveloped the woman. Her screams went from high pitched to hideous instantly, then shifted to a soul-chilling ghastly howl. Her skin seemed to dry up and shrivel, collapsing in on itself. As her body collapsed, it suddenly exploded in a rain of ashes, blowing the fire away with an almost cataclysmic burst of energy.
Where the ceremony had taken place now hovered a horror that chilled Kwang Ghe to the bone. His heat sensitive eyes could detect a void around the ghoul, as though it were sapping the very air of life itself. It was humanoid from mid-torso up, below that was simply a cloud of dark, vaporous energy. Huge skeletal wings flapped on its back, red fire burning in its black eye sockets.
The Demon swatted Kwang Ghe backwards like a fly. Landing amongst the broken earth near his companions, he rolled to his feet. He was about to rush the Demon when Remedy’s voice exploded in his head.
Around him lay the unconscious forms of the Circle minions.
“We have to work together,” Remedy said. Again the healing aura spread around her, pushing away the battle fatigue and pain from the heroes. Ginger folded the other heroes in bubbles of protective energy, warding away some of the attacks that would come their way.
Khazm nodded and said quietly, “Ready.”
Kwang Ghe nodded in agreement. “Ready.”
“Ready,” came the reply of the two women simultaneously.
The heroes fell upon the two Circle Bosses with fury. Concentrating first on the apparition that had recently been a captured woman, they lashed out with combined attacks. Dark energy hammered the Spectral villian, while Kwang Ghe kept the Death Mage at bay. The battle was furious, and seemed to drag on and on. Khazm poured dark attacks over the Demon, draining more and more of its energy, but the Demon’s hands lashed out repeatedly, slashing the heroes and knocking them back. Ginger tried to hold the Demon in a Ring of Fire, but the apparition slapped away the flames as though they weren’t even there. Remedy concentrated her own energies on fending off the wounds inflicted by the Demon, allowing the others to keep in the fight. The Demon’s attacks were vicious, but Khazm could deal out as well as take the damage. Weakened visibly, the Demon became more and more translucent, finally fleeing, shifting out of phase to protect itself.
Kwang Ghe and the Death Mage were locked in a pitched fight. The scrappers’ hands and feet lashed out with lightning speed, punishing the Mage. Dark blasts from the Mage’s wand ripped and clawed at Kwang Ghe, chilling him, slowing him down. Khazm leapt to his side and together they finally overwhelmed the powerful Circle Magician.
Kwang Ghe bent down, breathing hard, resting his hands on his thighs. Khazm could be heard breathing as heavily under the shroud that covered his face. Just as the heroes began to relax, Remedy was swatted forward, landing face first on the broken earth of the Fault.
The Demon had returned.
The Heroes once again fell upon the Spectral Apparition. Kwang Ghe’s hands and feet seemed to pass through the vaporous body, but the effect they had was obvious. Ginger, in a huge feat of skill and luck, managed to trap the Boss inside her Ring of Fire. Remedy had regained her feet and helped to distract the thing with mental attacks filled with anger.
Unable to flee this time, the Demon eventually succumbed to the attacks of the heroes, vanishing into thin air, dissipating into nothingness.
“Was it her?” Ginger asked.
“No,” came Remedy’s answer in her head. “Evangelica is far too powerful a member of the Magi to be turned so easily.”
“Then we must move on,” Kwang Ghe said. “She cannot be far ahead.”
The group continued down the Fault, following the unseen line of power that had been mapped out for them by the Magi. Deeper into the crevice the moonlight was blocked by more and more earth. The heroes moved slowly, careful not to let their presence known to anyone who might be watching ahead. Khazm, who was leading the way, held up his hand to stop the group.
“I feel something,” he said in a whisper.
“Me, too,” Ginger said. “They’re pulling a lot of power up ahead if we can feel it this far back, and it’s not a warm or fuzzy feeling either.”
“It is her,” Remedy said. “Or one such as her. I can feel a very strong mind ahead, female, fighting against something.”
They moved up the chasm, reaching a ledge that dropped off twenty feet. Below were more Circle mages, and two Spectral warriors, smaller versions of the demon they had just faced. An Agony Mage oversaw this ritual, with three Soul Mages and two Thorn Wielders bringing the enemies to eight. They surrounded a woman laying on the ground, a gag in her mouth, hands tied behind her back. Even from the height above, the heroes could see the anger burning in her eyes.
“Try to get them away from her, and I will free her,” Remedy told the group.
Kwang Ghe and Khazm agreed. Ginger again protected the others with force bubbles. Remedy closed her eyes in concentration, and spread her arms low. A blue aura surrounded her, and the group felt the rush of energy, as though their stamina would last forever.
Kwang Ghe and Khazm leapt first, followed by Remedy and Ginger. They fell on the three mages leading the ritual, pushing them back with hard attacks. Remedy quickly freed the woman from her bonds, her healing aura spreading over the woman.
Evangelica stood and thanked Remedy. She stood just under five feet tall, with flame red hair similar to Ginger Blaze’s, and piercing, angry green eyes. She raised her hands over her head and a rain of fire began to fall on the Circle of Thorn.
Kwang Ghe and Khazm punished the villains with attacks as they tried to flee the burning rain. The Thorn Wielders were quickly subdued, the Spectral warriors fled screaming into the night, leaving only the three Lieutenants and the Boss to deal with. Working together, the quickly finished off one of the Soul Mages, then the next. The Agony Mage blasted them with energy, pain flaring throw the heroes bodies, but Remedy’s healing aura was there to help dissipate the attacks that slipped past Ginger’s defensive bubbles.
The fight was over much more quickly than the last, the powerful Blaster they had freed unleashing fiery attacks combined with the two scrappers overwhelmed even the Agony Mage with ease.
When it was done, Evangelica thanked them, and asked who they were.
“We are part of the Onami Strike Force,” Kwang Ghe said. He introduced himself and the others.
“How did you know to look for me?” Evangelica asked?
“We have a friend who is a member of the Magi. She got word that you had been kidnapped. Heroes are searching several areas where the Circle are known to be. We were assigned Faultline.”
“Well, I appreciate you coming along.”
“What is going on,” Kwang Ghe asked. “Do you know why you were taken?”
“They were talking about something involving that possessed Hellion that caused the fire spree last year, and the coming of a Prince of Darkness. Cadao Kestrel is an authority on the Circle, he will know more. I’d better go talk to him. Thank you again.”
Evangelica leapt to the sky, flying off quickly to the south, heading for the gate out of Faultline.
“I believe PhoenixHawk knows Cadao Kestrel,” Kwang Ghe said. “We had better inform him.”
Aaron laid his hand gently on Thauma’s shoulder. For nearly two months now the dreams had been coming to her, with greater frequency. When she woke up, she never remembered the details, only that ‘something bad was coming.’
“Hey,” Aaron whispered, gently shaking her shoulder. Her breathing was ragged, her body at times nearly thrashing under the sweat soaked sheets, then she would lay still for a moment. Aaron had been plagued by nightmares his entire life, so he knew what she was going through. The first night it happened he had been awake for an hour after his own inner demons disturbed him. He walked back into the bedroom they shared to find Thauma flailing away at nothing, the yelling “No!” at the top of her lungs, sitting bolt upright in bed.
She didn’t remember what was so terrible, but she knew that it was.
“Hey,” Aaron said again, dodging as Thauma’s left arm lashing out towards some unseen phantom. He shook her a little more aggressively, until her eyes opened, darting around the room until she got her bearings.
When it finally appeared she realized where she was, she looked into his eyes and sighed. The look of sadness on her face was unmistakable, a manifestation of her grief that was nearly a separate and physical being in and of itself. She reached up and gripped his hand against her shoulder tightly.
“I’m sorry. I can’t stop the dreams.”
“I know you can’t,” Aaron told her, sitting on the edge of the bed. “You have no more control over them than I do of my own. But at least I know what cause mine. I wish we had some clue what was causing yours.”
“We’ll find out soon. Whatever it is, it’s getting closer.”
Two nights before, an all out manhunt had been put together by the Magi, to find Evangelica, a sorceress of considerable power. She and several other magic users had been kidnapped by the Circle of Thorns for some ritual that was to bring power to the Circle in order to summon a powerful Demon, who could then open the way to a Prince of Darkness. Kwang Ghe and other members of the Onami had learned of the plot when they found her in Faultline.
“I still think it has something to do with this ‘Prince of Darkness’ Evangelica was talking about.”
“It could,” Thauma said. “I don’t know.”
“Well whatever they had planned, they didn’t get all of the Magi they needed to compile enough powerful sacrifices to complete the ritual.”
“They’ll figure out another way. They always do. The Baron has never given up easily in his two hundred plus years on this earth.”
“And they’ve always been stopped. The Onami was part of stopping them last night, and we’ll stop them whenever they try again.”
“I hope you’re right.”
Aaron pulled off his t-shirt and lay on the bed next to Thauma. Draping his arm over her shoulder, she snuggled into the curve of his body.
“Do you think you can get some sleep now?” She asked.
“I’ll try, if you do.”
She kissed the back of his hand. “I’ll be asleep before you know it.”
Which they both knew was a lie.
At nine-thirty Thauma’s cell phone woke the couple. Thauma reached a long, ebony arm across the nightstand, flipping the phone open as she picked it up.
“Did I wake you?” Skida Marink asked from the other end.
“No,” Thauma lied.
“Yes, I did. I’m sorry. But I need to talk to you in Azuria’s office. Can you meet me here as soon as you’re up and about?”
“I’ll be there in half an hour.”
“See you then,” Skida said, then hung up.
True to her word, Thauma walked into the Magi office in the New Hero Assignment corridor in City Hall just under thirty minutes after hanging up the phone. Skida was there with Azuria, the two women pouring over an ancient tome on Azuria’s desk. When Thauma walked in Skida came around the desk to give the taller woman a firm hug.
“Thanks for coming so quickly. I’m sorry about waking you up.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Thauma said. “I would have been up earlier anyway, but I haven’t slept well lately. I started having nightmares about two months ago, and they’re coming more often lately.”
“I think I know why,” Azuria said.
“Come see this,” Skida said.
The book they had been studying spoke of the alignment of the meridians of power in the universe, and how the movement of the stars crossed and blended those lines so that at certain times, certain moments, the focus of power was greater on different worlds. This had been an understood fact of magic for centuries, though the book detailed some specifics that were often overlooked.
“Normally, when we count the alignment of the planets and stars, we think in terms of night,” Azuria said. “That’s why so many magicians practice at night, they can see and predict the alignment of the stars based on their eyes.
“One thing that is often overlooked is the alignment of the sun, which is just another star in the grand scheme of the universe, and where the planets and stars will be during the day.”
“I have been feeling the lines of power grow stronger over the past few weeks,” Skida said. Though she had been created through the work of the villainous Dr. Vazhilok, her scientifically created senses were attuned to lines of power, and the life force of others. This gave her great insight in being able to use her empathic abilities.
“I haven’t felt anything out of the ordinary,” Thauma said.
“But I think you have,” Azuria replied. “Your subconscious is registering the change, even though it’s been so slow and subtle that most of us have missed it.”
“Here’s what I think is causing them,” Skida said. “Baron Zoria is extremely powerful. He won’t have missed the alignment that is coming up. He was preparing for something big by his Circle mages kidnapping the Magi two nights ago. I think he was gearing up for a rare but powerful alignment of the sun and stars that will occur tomorrow afternoon.”
“Evangelica told us he was preparing to summon a massive Demon to open the way for a Prince of Darkness. She mentioned Xeqatl, the possessed Hellion from last year.”
“The reports say the Hellion claimed a ‘true Beast’ would come, and that he had paved the way for it,” Azuria said.
“That was what it said in the church before Guido destroyed it.”
“By drawing the power it did, it may have been priming the area with subtle power and spells to assist in the crossing,” Azuria said. “We didn’t find anything under the church, but I think it may be worth taking another look.”
“I’ll head over to Perez right now,” Thauma said.
“I’ll go with you,” Skida added.
Perez Park had fallen from the glory it held in days long past. The buildings left standing after the Hellions fire spree a year ago were covered in grim and ash, windows broken or boarded up. Businesses had left long ago, the offices they occupied full of dust and debris. The tall brick wall that separated the Park from the roadway around it was covered in graffiti, crumbling.
Deemed a ‘Hazard Zone’ by the authorities, groups of gang members hung out in packs all throughout the area. Skulls and Hellions held the roads outside of the wall, while groups of Lost, Vahzilok, and Circle of Thorns held the twisting maze through the trees. In the lake area monsters that were offshoots of the Hydra, a giant beast held deep in the sewers, fed on whatever grew in the dirty lake waters. Clockwork robots occasionally roved here and there looking for scraps of metal, parts to improve themselves.
The church sat back from the road, another monument to fallen glory. Once a beautiful haven to people and their religion, it had fallen into the depths of Paragon’s desperate times. The Hellions had, several years ago, invaded the church and killed nearly everyone within. A small priest, Father Stug, had survived, but been badly burnt, maimed. Changed from the man he had once been, he set out on a course of vengeance, taking up arms and devices against the villains of Paragon, eventually joining the Onami Strike Force. The team had begun calling him ‘Guido’, after a television character from the nineteen seventies who wore the same kind of hat that Father Stug used to cover the burn scars on his head.
After that, the Skulls had moved in, one of their leaders attempting to sacrifice Solanum and several other heroes to the Banished Pantheon gods. The efforts of Death’s Hand had gotten his essence trapped in a magical mirror that had somehow disappeared.
Last year, another Hellion and a Circle of Thorns Soul Mage had summoned a Demon, who had possessed the body of the Hellion, and killed the Mage. He had then sent the Hellions on a burning rampage that took a huge toll on life and property throughout Paragon.
Dust moved through the sunbeams pouring through the cracks in the stained glass windows as Thauma and Skida stepped into the church. The floorboards creaked beneath their boots. Every bench, table, altar had been overturned, destroyed, or stolen. Cracks lined the walls, along with graffiti and arcane symbols.
Skida held out her hands before her and closed her eyes.
“Can you feel it?” she asked.
Thauma nodded. “This place still radiates power.”
“It’s no wonder it keeps being used the way it has.”
“Let’s see if we can find anything recent,” Thauma said.
The pair moved along slowly, Skida’s hands out from her, occasionally feeling the air in different places. Both women could trace the lines of power moving through the church, following a path that led through a dining hall, to a door leading down to the basement.
There was no light down the stairs, which curved around into complete darkness. Thauma cupped her hands and uttered a quick spell, a small ball of orange light glowing like a bright candle from within the curves of her palms.
The basement too had been ransacked. Broken chairs and furniture littered the area. Trash of all kinds scattered about, the air stunk of mold. Several things scurried away from the light, neither woman really wanting to know what they were, or what they had been feeding on.
The feeling of power focused tightly in the large room. The women walked in opposite directions around the circumference of the room, cautiously moving throughout the debris.
“It bleeds in through the walls,” Thauma Guard said.
Skida nodded in agreement. “I can’t find any cracks or fissures, hidden doorways or portals. I don’t know where it’s coming from.”
“Maybe we’re over top of an unexcavated part of Orenbega.”
“Maybe,” Skida agreed. “I’m not really up for an archaeological dig right now, are you?”
Thauma shook her head. “No. And I don’t think this is anything we were looking for. The Magi can send some diggers to find out more about this place.”
PheonixHawk had spent the day with several members of the Onami and Archangels pushing back a Rikti war party in the sewers. It had taken Aaron an hour in the shower to get the smell of the sewer water out of his hair.
Thauma Guard had come home late, having spent the rest of the day pouring over books and scrolls with Azuria and Skida. Both Heroes had collapsed into bed just after eleven o’clock.
At just before dawn Thauma screamed in her sleep, nearly throwing Aaron from the bed.
“It’s here,” she told Aaron who had caught himself tumbling from the bed and was hovering several feet above the floor.
“The Circle has summoned something awful. I can feel it. The planets are starting to align, the lines of power are thrumming. By this afternoon it will be dizzying.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s what we think has been causing my nightmares. I can see it now. They brought something through, just as Evangelica said they would. The thing is here to open the doorway to something far worse. A Prince of Darkness that could kill us all.”
Both Aaron’s and Thauma’s cell phones started ringing at nearly the same time.
“Can you feel it?” Skida asked when Thauma answered hers.
“Yes. I know what they brought through and we have to stop it.”
PhoenixHawk was speaking to Cedao Kestral, one of his many contacts throughout the City, an authority on the Circle of Thorns.
“They’ve been gathering throughout the night,” Cedao said. “A huge conclave. Something big is in the works. I spoke to Azuria who said that the Onami and Archangels were on this. Evangelica wants in, too. The police have cordoned off an area, blocking it with temporary shield walls. The Demon they summoned tonight has but one purpose, to open the doorway for it’s Master, one of the Princes of Darkness. If that happens, hundreds, maybe thousands of people, Heroes and civilians alike, will die. You must stop the summoning ritual before it is complete. It will be easier if you stop it before the ritual has begun.
“Another thing: Demon’s are bound by their true name, spoken in their tongue. Uttering it can break their power. We believe we know the true name of this Demon, though we cannot be sure. If not, it will be strictly up to your abilities to stop it.”
Cedao worked with Aaron for several minutes until he had the proper pronunciation of the twisted, throat torturing name down.
“We’ll be on it,” PhoenixHawk said. “The ritual will be stopped if it’s the last thing I do.”