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From the Ashes

D Heikes

Chapter 2

            Thauma woke up the next morning, her three eyes burning from the light pouring in through the window.  Groggily she looked at the clock; ten-thirty.  Had it really been seven hours since her meeting at City Hall.

            The memory of the dreams that had awakened her before the meeting was strong in her mind.  She did all she could to suppress the depression that threatened to swim through her like a virus, but it gnawed at her from just below her consciousness.

            The bed creaked as she levered her six-foot-plus frame upright.  Sitting on the edge of the bed, she ran her ebony hands through her bright orange hair, and sighed.

            It was just so hard to go on fighting, some days, she thought. 

            She stood and craned her neck, moving her head in circles, the joints in her neck popping loudly.  She stretched her arms across her body, then up, and around, slowly loosening the kinks from the muscles.  Some yoga stretches she did every morning helped get her blood flowing, while allowing her to try to shut the thoughts that poured through her mind out for a short period.

            What had Numina been hinting at, that looking into Tropic as she and Azuria had requested would be of greater importance than she could know?  Of course, Numina could just have been being her normal, vague, ghost self.  When people died, they died, didn’t they?  Apparently not always.  Numina was still alive.

            Aaron was gone, though, Thauma realized.  She had seen the stroke of the Demon’s claws that had killed him, talons driven straight through his armor, body, and into the ground underneath.  What she wouldn’t give for him to have survived in astral form as Numina had.  But that, too, she knew was impossible.  The blast he had unleashed upon his death had drained him entirely.

            So why was it so important the Onami Strike Force undertake this task for Numina?  Why didn’t they just ask some of the other Top Ten members what was going on with Tropic?  Maybe they were too biased, too close to the source to be objective.  But there were other groups that could just as easily look into who, or what, Tropic had become.

            Lately her days had consisted of contacting the Hero Corps and seeing who needed assistance on what.  Occasionally she would work together with one of the other Onami Strike Force members, but the team always felt the loss of their leader.  Kwang Ghe was able to be objective, to move forward and continue his work as usual.  His discipline was amazing, compartmentalizing any emotion and moving on with duty.  Marissa, Shadow Pain, was similar in that respect, though she and Thauma, long time close friends, were open about their feelings of loss.  Thauma’s brother Rosh, The NyteHawk, continued to fight side by side with Father ‘Guido’ Stug.

Lady Emily had joined with the Onami’s coalition group, the Archangels of the Apocalypse, needing to move out from under Dr. Ward’s wings and establish her own identity.  This was not meant as a sign of any disrespect, she loved her guardian and those who had helped her become the Hero she was, but she felt as though staying within the Onami kept her under her parent’s wings.  Still, she was always close, always in contact, always a good friend, as were all of the members of the AotA.  Khazm had migrated with Lady Emily, feeling the desire to work in tandem with a team more often than the Onami did of late.  Perhaps it was his way of dealing with Aaron’s loss.  He, too, remained a close friend, and his wife, Ginger Blaze remained on the Onami roster, though she was on leave from the Corps to raise their infant daughter.

            Thauma thought of these, and all members of both Super Groups, counting them as family, feeling as though she had let them all down.  Six years before Numina had told her it was imperative to hold the Onami together, that they would face their darkest days.  Those days had come to pass, and Thauma felt she had failed in her task, and had literally leapt away from the leadership of the group. 

I can rectify that, she told herself, climbing back to her feet.

She used her cell phone to call Marissa who answered on the first ring.   It was she who was now officially listed as leader of the Onami, but the group had not performed any official Group task in nearly a two years.  The members who remained held firmly to their origins and beliefs, never letting the Onami disappear.

“You working on anything particular today?” Thauma asked.

“Not especially.  Why, what’s up?”

“I need to talk.  Numina has set a task for me, and wants the Onami together for it?”

“She specifically asked for the Onami?” Marissa sounded skeptical.  “That’s unusual.”

“Yes, and it makes me wonder.  Can you meet me around noon?”

“In Steel Canyon, the Italian restaurant two doors down from the Icon shop.  We can have lunch.”

“I’ll see you there,” Thauma said.  “Expect some of the others, too.”

“I’ll try to get a big table.”

Thauma called Kwang Ghe, who also said he’d be there, as would Rosh, Guido, and Sharuk Haashkar.  Ever-Night was tied up in work against the Carnival of Shadows, the bizarre show that had found a purchase near Peregrine Island.  Thundering Takai and Brain Fried had to work through a warehouse in Talos Island that the Warriors had taken over, but said if they finished in time would be there.

The last person Thauma called was the head of the Archangels, Skida Marink.

“Several members of the Onami are getting together for lunch in Steel Canyon, and I was hoping you could join us.”

“Is this an official, or social meeting?” Skida asked.

“Isn’t it normally some of both?”

Skida laughed.  “Of course, but it’s been a while since the Onami gathered in any significant number.”

“Numina put me up to it.”

Skida was quiet for some time.

“You still there?” Thauma asked.

“Yeah.  I was just a little put off by that.  Did Numina actually say the Onami Strike Force had to meet, or did she give you an assignment that you want the group together for?”

“No, she actually said ‘this task is for you and the Onami.’  I asked her why, and she said ‘because it must be the Onami.’”

“That’s really weird, T.”

“I know.”

“So if she wants the Onami to handle this, will she get annoyed if the AotA gets involved as well?”

“I don’t know,” Thauma said.  “But I’m not asking you to.  I just want some outside perspective, and maybe you guys can keep your eyes and ears open, and drop us some info if it passes your way.  And, I’d really like to see you guys.”

“Ok,” Skida said.  “Celsius and I will be there.”

“Perfect.  I’ll see you around noon.”

Thauma called Marissa back and told her to get a bigger table, then went to take a shower.

It was late May and the weather in Paragon City had grown pleasantly warm.  Gone were people’s coats, and sweaters.  The beaches had begun to fill up on weekends, the trees and flowers were in full bloom.  Birds sang in the trees, and a gentle breeze blew, carrying the clouds along slowly overhead.  Thauma had broken out her ‘spring costume’, which basically consisted of a skirt, high boots, and corset.  She pulled a fedora over her hair, covering the third eye in the center of her forehead, then headed out for the train station.

She could have leapt from her balcony to the yellow line train station in no time, but sometimes she just wanted to move amongst the average citizens, walk and drive like a normal person.  Pedestrian traffic was high as noon approached, businessmen and women heading out for lunch in Atlas Park.  The parking lot around City Hall was full of cars.  Police officers walked the sidewalks, keeping their eyes on the Hellions that lurked about.

Thauma could hear the occasional whisper behind her as she walked down the street, people star gazing at the Hero in front of them.  Her height and dark skin made her stand out in a crowd.  She didn’t mind the attention, but sometimes she found it hard to try to live any sort of a normal life.

One of the benefits of being part of the Hero Corps was the unlimited pass to use Paragon’s transit system.  Often City employees, including members of the Corps, needed to move quickly and easily from one area of the city to another.  The train lines offered a simple solution, and though it was odd to see a Hero in full costume, it was not unheard of for them to catch a quick ride to where ever they needed to be.

Everyday people crowded around the door as the car pulled into the Atlas Park station, allowing passengers to disembark, before pressing into the standing room only car.  There was a constant battle between the Transit Authority workers who cleaned and painted the cars, and the gang members who constantly were painting graffiti on them, but the insides were generally clean.

The press of passengers wasn’t so tight that people were rubbing against one another, but shoulders bumping or hands brushing against another person wasn’t a huge deal, and Thauma ignored it until she felt a pair of fingers brush by the side pocket of her skirt.  Her hand shot out like a snake, catching the arm of the pickpocket, her wallet inches from the pocket where she kept it.  She twisted the thief’s hand up and inward, dark vapors of power writhing about her hand.  When her wallet dropped, she caught it deftly with her free hand and replaced it in her pocket.

“That’s not a very nice thing to do,” she told the young teenaged boy.  She let her power flow up the boy’s arm, knowing he could feel the biting cold of it enveloping him.  The train came to a stop and Thauma flicked her arm, sending the pickpocket sprawling out of the train and onto the platform.

“You’re lucky I’m feeling generous today or you’d be spending some time in the Ziggurat.”

The boy scrambled to his feet and ran full tilt up the stairs towards the Kings Row exit.

The doors to the train closed again, and the train moved on.  Thauma looked around at the stares of the other passengers, and sighed to herself, saddened.  There would never be a ‘normal’ life for her.  She wondered if Shakti and her husband were faring any better outside of Washington, D.C., where they had moved to raise their son.

The train stopped at the southern edge of Steel Canyon.  A highway ran north past the subway station, cutting some corners and around several small parks, eventually following the shield wall to the northeast corner of Steel.  Skyscrapers dominated the view, blocking one from seeing how far the streets in the urban area stretched.  Steel was one of the nicer parts of Paragon, full of high dollar businesses; banks, government contractors, engineering firms.  Some of the original areas of grass had been preserved as parks, along with small ponds that broke up the sprawl of buildings.

Members of the Outcasts could be seen lurking around alleys or doorways.  The gang ran most of Steel Canyon’s underworld, but occasionally fought with Dr. Vazhilok’s minions who came up from the sewer system to drag new victims down to be dissected and used for experimentation.  The Tsoo had a working truce with the Outcasts, and could be found making transactions if one looked hard enough.

Thauma had not come to Steel Canyon to pursue criminals today, though if she witnessed anything heinous she would, without a doubt, intervene.  It was her duty, an obligation she believed firmly in, but nothing screamed at her for attention, so she boarded a bus headed for the Green line of the subway system to the north.

The bus stopped outside of the Green line station, where a throng of passengers waited to be taken to Talos Island, Independence Port, Brickstown, or one of the other stops along the line.  Several Heroes stood atop the elevated subway station watching over the people, alert for any sign of trouble, and comparing new additions to their costumes that the tailors at the Icon shop a quarter mile away had added.

More pedestrians walked along the sidewalks, business folk out for lunch between meetings or whatever the unfortunate who were kept cooped up inside offices all day were forced to endure.  Thauma walked amongst them, taking a leisurely stroll past the Icon shop to a restaurant called ‘A Taste of Venice’.  There were people in business attire waiting in groups to be seated, milling about in front of the main entrance.

Around to the side of the building was a smaller entrance, kept under an awning, set aside for members of the Hero Corp.  Being so close to the Icon shop had proved to be a draw for several Heroes just after the restaurant opened.  Over the years word had spread about the great food and atmosphere of the restaurant, close to Icon, and it had become nearly legendary.  Swarms of photographers and tourists would flock to the restaurant too, in hopes of getting a glimpse or shot of one of Paragon’s Heroes, but that was soon put to a stop by Andretti, the owner, who expanded the restaurant with a room in the back especially for Heroes.

Andretti, a thick man with equally thick black hair, was making rounds in his restaurant when Thauma Guard came through the side entrance.

“It’s good to see you, Ms. Thauma,” Andretti said.  “We’ve missed you these last few years.”

Thauma smiled.  She and Aaron had been regulars at the restaurant, but she hadn’t been more than three times since his death.

“I’m sorry, Andretti.  You know I love it here.  I’ll try to stop in more often.”

Andretti bowed.  “Please do.  Your group is waiting at the back.  We moved some tables around to make room.”

“Make room?”  Thauma asked. 

Andretti just smiled and extended his hand, offering her towards the back.

Inside the back room of the restaurant, thirty tables spread out around small dividers and pillars, all filled with Heroes.  Thauma recognized some, nodding and saying hello as she past them, but when she rounded a pillar, she stopped dead in her tracks.

Her breath caught in her throat as she bit back the tears that welled in her eyes.

Though dressed in street clothes, sitting at several tables that had been drawn together was nearly every member, past and present, of the Onami Strike Force, as well as several Archangels of the Apocalypse.

Skida Marink came around and gave Thauma a fierce hug, and wiped away the tear that dripped down Thauma’s cheek.

‘You’re late, as usual,” Skida said with a smile.

Thauma looked around the room.  “I don’t know what to say.”

“You don’t have to say anything,” Marissa said.  “Just sit down and order something, then you can tell us all what’s going on.”

Kwang Ghe, and his adopted daughter Onami, who had taken the groups name as her own, sat at a table with the Nytehawk, Father Stug, and Sharuk Haashkar.  A table over were Remedy Hart, Thudering Takai, and Brain Fried.

Another table was filled with members of the AotA.  Skida and Celsius Bane sat with Khazm and Ginger Blaze, Ginger bouncing her daughter on her lap.  Lady Emily joined them with Sir Kit.  Though Khazm and Emily had both been members of the Onami, their reasons for switching to the sister group were well understood, and everyone in both groups considered each other family.

Still others filled the rest of the tables.  Tragic Johnson, Ever-night, Nyte Muse, Big Chill, Spectreblade, Reconing, and I Doctor all nodded in Thauma’s direction. 

Skida showed Thauma to a place at the table with Marissa and Sierra Watson, also known as Nova 1.  Just as Thauma was taking her seat, a woman’s voice asked “Did I miss anything?”

Sierra stood up and smiled.  “Cousin!”  She came around the table and gave the last member to come in a hard hug.  Lisa Snyder, Shakti to many, gave Thauma a hug as well, then sat next to her cousin.

Thauma shook her head again, still amazed.  “I can’t believe this.”

Lisa smiled.  “What?  You didn’t think I’d let you throw a party and not invite me, did you?”

Thauma smiled.  “Of course not.  But how did you get here so fast?”

Shakti showed through Lisa’s sly grin with a wink.  “I can still fly, you know.”

Several members of the groups laughed.

“How are V and Devon?” Thauma asked.

“They’re good.  V has him out camping this week, otherwise they’d be here, too.”

Thauma looked around at her assembled friends, her family.

“It’s been too long,” She said.  “I’ve missed you all.”

There were many replies, expressing a similar sentiment.

“Well, most of that is my fault,” Thauma said.  “I was told years ago, before Aaron died, that we would face hard times, but that we must hold together.  I failed in that.  I’m sorry.”

“There’s nothing to be sorry about,” Doctor Ward said.  “We all miss him.  He was a strong leader, and a great friend.  Being together will always remind us of him, always reminds us that we fought under his banner.  But his memory should bind us, not let the sorrow of his loss separate us.  Though we all had to grieve in our own way, we all are to blame for not staying closer.”

Thauma nodded.

“Thank you, Doctor.   But, my friends, now is time to rectify all that we have let slip.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Celsius Bane said, raising a glass of iced tea in the air.  The rest of the group followed suit, until all had their glasses raised.

Thauma swallowed back the lump in her throat.  “Two years ago I walked away, leaving the Onami leaderless again.  Shadow Pain took up that mantle, but realized we needed time to heal.  That time has past, and I gladly accept those reigns again.  Aaron helped us forge a bond that cannot be broken.  He gave us strength, but the strength did not come from him, it came from within us all.  We will hold that bond together, and once again crash over the villains that plague Paragon City like the cresting wave he gave us as an emblem.”

“To the Onami,” Kwang Ghe said, standing with his glass raised.

“Onami,” others repeated, until all stood with their glasses raised.

Thauma nodded a thanks for the salute.

“To the Onami,” She said, raising a glass that had been brought to her.

The team drank to their unity, and their fallen leader.  As they sat, conversations cropped up between and across tables, people wondering what had brought the team back together.

Through the din of talk, waiters had begun moving through the crowd taking orders and delivering drinks.  Lunch was served, the food was excellent, made better by the company being kept, and the feeling that some weight had just been lifted from the groups’ shoulders.

When everyone had finished their meals, Thauma asked the wait staff to refill everyone’s drinks, then excuse them for a short time.  Andretti came over and she asked him if he wouldn’t mind keeping everyone out of the back corner the group occupied for a short time.  Andretti agreed without question.

As the last of the waiters moved around the corner from the grouped tables, Thauma held her hands up in front of her, closing her two natural eyes, she peered into a nether world with the third centered in her forehead, drawing power.  Speaking words of magic softly, the air around her shimmered a barely perceptible green that spread out over the whole group in an almost invisible bubble.  All noise, in or out, was blocked by the force field.

The conversation amongst the Onami and AotA members stopped almost immediately.  All eyes turned to Thauma Guard.

“My friends, I cannot thank you enough for coming here today.  Unfortunately, this is not simply a meeting to overcome our grief and obstacles.  We have a mission, though vague, placed before us.  Azuria and Numina met with me in the early hours of the morning at City Hall.  The reason I called to meet here, which led to the obvious network calling that brought everyone together, was a strange statement from Numina.  She said that the mission she gave me was for the Onami Strike Force, specifically, and that no other Group could accomplish it.”

“They’re simply calling on the best there is to do the job,” Rosh, said.  There were several smirks in response to the jest.

“That may have been the case five years ago,” Thauma said.  “But the reality is that the Onami hasn’t been very strong since Aaron died.  Again, I feel responsible for that.  So, if it were simply some difficult task, they could easily have called upon the Archangels or another, more active, group to do the work.  Numina stated this task was for us, and us alone.”

“Any idea what makes us so vital to whatever the mission is?”  Sierra asked.

Thauma shook her head.  “No.  To be honest I don’t have even the faintest clue why it should fall to us, but Numina has the tendency to be vague about some things, while direct about others.  She wouldn’t say why, but she was adamant about the Onami.”

“So why call out the Archangels as well?” Khazm asked, his eerie voice sounding like wind blowing through a deep cave.

“Aside from the strength we gain from family?”

“That is always a given,” Khazm said.  “You know I would never question that.  But if Numina were that specific, won’t it be going against her intentions by involving both groups?”

Thauma shook her head.  “That is a good point.  No, I don’t believe, at least in the initial stages of the mission, that it will.”

“So what is ‘the mission’ already?” Guido asked. 

Thauma smiled.  “Always to the point, Father Stug.”

Guido nodded.  “I want to be nothing if not consistent.”

The smile widened.  “That you are, Father.

“Ok, here it is.  Everyone has heard the rumors of Tropic’s return from the dead?”

There were nods all around.

“I saw him briefly when I was passing through Talos Island,” Sierra said.  “He radiates power like no Hero I’ve ever seen before, not even Statesman.”

“Our mission deals with that,” Thauma said.

“With Tropic’s powers?” Thundering Takai asked.

“With Tropic himself.”

A murmur broke out amongst the gathered Heroes.  Thauma held up her hands for silence.

“I know what you’re all thinking.  We have no business spying on another Hero.  You’re right.  However, this is a special circumstance.  The details of Tropic’s return are not entirely clear to anyone not close to him.  Rumor has it that it’s not even him, but someone impersonating him.  I mentioned that to Numina, and she said that he would be Tropic ‘regardless of what shell he inhabits’.   Though they didn’t mention it, I think the Magi are worried that we might lose Tropic.”

“They think he’s going to be killed again?” Guido asked.

“No,” Reconing said.  “They’re worried he’s going to turn.”

Celsius Bane shook his head.  “I don’t see that happening.  Tropic would never turn on Paragon.”

“Don’t be too sure of that,” Tragic Johnson said.  “There are those with power on both sides, and those who have jumped over the fence in either direction.”

“I don’t think they’re worried so much that he’ll turn around and start attacking the City or Heroes,” Thauma said.  “What I gathered is that he is much stronger than he was, and that perhaps he is losing some of himself to that.  If he becomes too powerful…”

“He could become another Lord Recluse,” Shakti said.

Thauma nodded.  “Maybe not quite the personification of evil that we see in Recluse, but something nearly as powerful.”

“So what are we supposed to do?” Remedy Hart asked, her voice filling the heads of those around her without physically speaking.

“Keep our eyes and ears open,” Thauma said.  “That’s what the Archangels can help with.  I need to know what’s going on out there without being conspicuous about it.  Find out everything any of us can about Tropic, what he’s been doing since he came back, and report it back to me.  I’ll work up as much data as I can and see if we can find out whether or not the Magi’s fears are confirmed.”

“And if they are?” Rosh asked.

“Then it may fall to the Onami to stop Tropic from wreaking too much havoc.”

“If he’s as strong as rumor says, that may be difficult,” Marissa said.

Thauma nodded.  “That, I think, is why it is important that we bring ourselves back together.”

“I don’t have a warm fuzzy feeling about this,” Skida said.

“None of us do,” Thauma said.  “We’re not some internal affairs division to police other Heroes.  However, justice and honor must remain, and we are sworn to uphold both.  If anyone crosses those lines, we must step up to stop them, no matter what path that takes.”

The members of both groups agreed to discreetly look into the situation surrounding Tropic, while trying not to bring undue attention upon themselves.  Thauma let the force field around the group slip, the sounds of the rest of the restaurant immediately filled the air again.

Thauma spoke to Andretti, covering the bill for her group’s lunch, even over the many objections.  The only room she gave in on was allowing the members to cover the tip for the wait staff.  Since their meals had been paid for, the Heroes tipped exceedingly well, making the wait staff’s day.

There were several strong hugs and handshakes amongst the members of both groups as the members parted to begin gathering information.  Everyone expressed the same sentiment:  It was good to be working together as a whole again.  It had been too long.

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