From the Ashes:
“Why so many?” the smaller woman asked. Skida wore a short black dress and high boots. The warm early-summer weather blossomed throughout the park where they stood in Founder’s Falls.
“A couple of reasons,” Thauma replied. “First, we need their whole team involved in this. They know something is not right but don’t know what to do about it. Second, if it’s just WillowWind, you know she’ll cover up for her daughter’s father.”
“Of course she would. She’d cover for any of her team, just as we’d cover for any of ours.”
Thauma nodded in agreement.
Skida looked over the team list, then nodded. “Well rounded. I notice you only want C.B. and I from the Archangels. Are you sure you want us there? Numina said this was for the Onami.”
Thauma smiled, the dark skin around her eyes softened. She and Skida had been close friends for years. Thauma considered her just as much family as any of the Onami members, maybe more than some, and the feeling carried over to many of the Archangels. The thought of excluding them had never crossed Thuama’s mind.
“It’s more than just because I trust you,” Thauma said. “I want WillowWind and the Top Ten to know the trouble is showing through to more than just the Onami, and that we’re serious about doing something.”
“Who is she bringing?” Skida asked.
“I guess we’ll find out when we get there, but here look at this.” Thauma opened a manilla folder she had brought with her. It contained the current Top Ten roster, including some photos and power descriptions.
“Where did you get that?”
“Azuria. She set us on this, so I made her give me what I needed to finish it.”
“You think we’ll have enough trouble with this to justify background research?”
“No sense going in without at least having some idea who we’re dealing with,” Thauma said. “We all know the news, see the major players. Tropic is well known, and WillowWind.” She flipped over pages, showing a picture of a man with spiked hair, wearing blue sunglasses. “Lord Nikon is another key player, as are Elendil and Deep Phreeze.” Two more pages, showing a black haired man with hints of gray, wearing a black and gold Top Ten uniform, and a blond woman surrounded by a blue mist.”
Skida looked over the pictures, committing them to memory quickly.
“Ok, give me the rest of the details.”
Thauma laid out the time and meeting place. The groups would gather in Perez Park, near the lake. It was a hot spot for Clockwork minions gathering or digging for metal fragments, but was far enough removed from the Hellions and Skulls to be a problem. Perez had been abandoned by Paragon’s citizens for years, but had still been badly burnt during the Hellions fire rampage years past, and torn apart by the Beast that Tropic had sacrificed himself to bring down. What wasn’t ruined buildings was open grounds covered by weeds, fed by the blood that flowed when the villainous groups that congregated in the police-free area clashed.
* * *
The clockwork cogs scattered as the NyteHawk threw a wave of cerulean energy over them, moving towards the deserted boathouse in search of metal scrap. Father “Guido” Stug had accompanied the NyteHawk as he often did, along with the never distant companion Sharuk Haashkar.
Guido’s wide brimmed hat shaded him from the growing afternoon heat. The half-man/half-demon Sharuk seemed oblivious to the heat, the red veins in his jet-black chest pulsing a constant glow. The NyteHawk had pulled his hood back from the heat, revealing his spiked orange hair that matched that of his sister, Thauma Guard.
Thauma stood with Skida Marink, both women in skirts and high boots, leaning on a bench they had righted, overlooking the water of the lake gently lapping at the shore. Celsius Bane stood near his wife Skida, the shroud covering the lower half of his face unmoving, arms crossed like the black-clad immovable object that he was.
The Top Ten members had begun to gather near the tree line. Thauma recognized several from the pictures she had looked through before. Lord Nikon had arrived, and stood near Deep Phreeze, the cold aura spreading around the blond woman obviously giving some relief to the climbing temperature. WillowWind was there, speaking with her teammates, occasionally glancing over at the Onami gathering.
Shakti arrived only minutes before Shadow Pain shimmered into existence amid the group. Having left Paragon to start a family even before PhoenixHawk’s death, Shakti had returned for the Onami gathering and had been back several times since. With her son getting older, and able to take care of himself without constant supervision, she took great pleasure in once again flexing her powers.
More members arrived from both Super Groups, each moving to their respective place without gravitating towards one another. Kwang Ghe came with Remedy Hart and Nova 1. Brain Fried, and Thundering Takai came next. Spectreblade and Reconing, who had worked together often in the past few years, were the last to arrive.
Across the distance Electrik Death stood out, his bio-organic face and demonic horns similar to those that spread over Sharuk’s head, visible to even non-augmented eyes. A brown-haired man wearing a small mask with a bow slung across his back walked next to another in glowing orange and black tech armor. When a smallish woman wearing a well tailored suit jacket, skirt, and heels showed up carrying a briefcase, she and WillowWind took the lead, walking to where the Onami members waited.
Thauma nodded a greeting to WillowWind, who returned a cold stare. A slightly troubled look played around the black-haired woman’s eyes, but Thauma could more easily read the irritation on her face.
“You’re message said you wanted to talk,” WillowWind said. “So, talk.”
Great, Thauma thought. It’s going to be like that.
“Actually, the message said…”
“I know what the message said,” WillowWind cut her off. Nodding to the woman with the briefcase she said “Kira is our receptionist as well as a member. She took the message herself.”
“Ok, let’s not get into semantics. You want to get right to the point, so be it. Tropic is becoming a problem to more than just your group. Something needs to be done about it.”
“What gives you the right to say or do do anything about our business?” Miyaka asked, stepping next to WillowWind. Her right hand rested on the hilt of her Katana.
“It’s everyone’s business,” Skida said. “You can’t hide the fact that Tropic is out of control.”
“Control is a subjective term,” Lord Nikon said. “What you see as out of control may not be for him.”
“So luring a huge group into a store in Peregrine Island and vaporizing them all wasn’t a little over the top?” Celsius Bane asked.
“The groups were a threat to everyone around there,” Elendil said. “He neutralized them.”
“Atomized is more like it,” Father Stug snickered just loud enough to be heard.
“Use of lethal force is sometimes…” Kira Jinx started.
“Sometimes!” Thauma cut the receptionist off. “Not just whenever he, or you, or I feel like it! Tropic has been going around the city incinerating Freakshow, Crey, and who knows who else.”
“There’s no evidence Tropic killed those Freaks,” Elendil said.
“Or that Crey lab?” Shadow Pain said. “I was there myself. I saw what he did. What you didn’t want me to see.”
“You saw what someone did!” Miyaka said, staring directly into Shadow Pain’s eyes. The two katana wielders eyes locked, the air between them nearly rippling with tension. The two groups had been edging slightly towards each other, closer and closer with each verbal exchange.
“Let’s try to keep calm,” Skida said.
“That would be a lot easier if you would just mind your own damned business,” WillowWind said, standing now face to face with, and staring up at, Thauma Guard.
“We can’t,” Thauma said. “It’s more than just us. We were assigned this.”
“Azuria,” Skida said.
“And Numina,” Thauma added.
WillowWind’s eyes went wide. She gasped in shock and anger, looking down momentarily, then stepping right into Thauma Guard’s face.
“They said that Tropic killed those Freaks, didn’t they? And you took their word for it? And that made it ok for you to start poking around in our affairs?”
“I didn’t have to take anyone’s word for anything,” Thauma said. “It was right out in the open if you looked for it.”
“Nothing is right out in the open!” WillowWind’s voice had begun to escalate.
“Oh, please,” the NyteHawk said under his breath. “Make this worth my while.”
WillowWind’s glare shot towards the NyteHawk, then back to Thauma.
“And just what was it that I missed that was ‘right out in the open’?”
“Tropic was set up. Those Freaks weren’t after you or your daughter. The note Tropic was given was planted there by Dreck, through Warblade, a Warrior that Tropic had some dealings with before. The Freaks Tropic killed were planning to take Dreck down, but Tropic burnt them to a crisp before they had a chance to do it.”
“You keep saying that like there is proof,” Lord Nikon said.
“The proof is right there, only you think we’re too stupid to see it,” the NyteHawk said. “But we do see it, and I’m getting pretty tired of you assuming that if you say it enough times, we might start to believe you.”
A murmur went through the Top Ten ranks, not liking the tone the NyteHawk was taking with them, which suited NyteHawk fine. A blue nimbus bloomed around his hands as he crossed his arms across his chest, the cerulean energy flowing through him flared in the veins across his ebony chest.
The members of both Super Groups fanned out behind the two women who chose to be the focal points. Backwoods Archer unslung the bow from his back, Father Stug’s assault rifle coming to rest in his hands.
Skida Marink was talking to members of both groups, trying to dissipate the tension, but it was blooming like a mushroom cloud.
“I don’t care who assigned what to you,” WillowWind said, her face inches from Thauma Guard’s. “You have no right telling us what to do with, or about, any member of our group. You especially have no right telling me what to do with the father of my child!”
“I have every right!” Thauma growled. “Tropic is becoming a danger to everyone, not just the villains of this city. What if he’d killed someone innocent over in Peregrine!? What if it had been your daughter?”
WillowWind’s hand lashed out faster than anyone would have expected. The sound of the slap cracking across Thauma’s cheek was like a gunshot over the lake, and was all that was needed to set of the bomb of tension that had grown between the two groups.
The NyteHawk stepped up next to his sister, throwing a backhanded arc of energy into the midst of the Top Ten, sending several members flying backwards.
The rasp of two swords coming free of their scabbards was clear as Shadow Pain and Miyaka squared off, the blades dancing a graceful and deadly ballet.
Fire and energy exploded from both sides. Members of both groups were flung about, hit with waves of force, fire, ice, and steel. A string of small fire imps rushed into the fray, leaving small burning patches behind them. Hell echoed across the lake as nearly two dozen of Paragon’s heroes lashed out at each other, returning the volleys in a clash like the city had not seen in many years, if ever.
For nearly thirty seconds chaos reigned until the clouds overhead boiled black and a blast of lightning hit the ground right in the middle of the conflict, a concussion wave of thunder sending every one of the heroes flying backwards away from it, leaving them all sprawled out on the ground. Their eyes were blinded by the enormous flash, but that was nothing compared to the ringing in their ears, not from the thunder, but from the voice that shouted out at them, drowning out the blast.
As the stars cleared from their eyes, the heroes climbed back to their feet to find a tall woman hovering above the ground where the lightning had struck. Her face was almost painfully beautiful to look at, though the anger that seethed there almost marred it. Dressed in golden armor, a great bow across her back, she was surrounded by a blinding white glow.
“Artemis,” someone mumbled.
“Goddess,” said another.
Several of the heroes dropped to a knee, their heads bowed before the woman.
“Shame should fill thy hearts,” Artemis said. “Thou hast been given the greatest of gifts! The powers handed down from us, with which thou were to cleanse the world. And how dost thou use thine gifts? Upon one another! In anger!”
The heads of the heroes hung low, like scolded children.
Artemis turned to Shakti and said, “And thou especially shouldst know better!”
“I’m sorry, mother,” Shakti replied.
The eyes of every hero turned to the small fire wielder almost as one.
“Mother?” Thauma asked.
“Yes, mother,” Artemis said. “For centuries, nay eons, we have walked amongst you. Our pact fobideth us from directly controlling thine lives, but we can still take human form, pass along our bloodlines with thine own, help thee to grow. And how dost thou repay us?”
“They shouldn’t be interfering with us,” WillowWind said.
“Quiet thine insolence. Their reason is just, though neither they, nor you, know it. The Dread One’s role in life is not yet complete. It was for this reason that he was allowed to come back to thee. But warned was I that his power might once again corrupt him. Thou knoweth this to be true.”
“But why is it their place to do anything about it?” Miyaka asked.
“Art thou able? Any of thee?”
“He doesn’t listen to us,” WillowWind said. “He believes he is a god.”
Artemis laughed out loud at that. “Not yet. He has the power of a god within him, but that power is confined, bound by the same limits we placed upon ourselves. That god still lives within him, two personalities that combine to make the Dread One what he is. Since his return, he hath embraced the part of him that giveth him his power. That part begins to sway the balance in its favor. While he liveth upon this Earth, he will never be able to fully tap, nor become, the god he believes he is, though he could perhaps be of the most powerful amongst any of thine races.”
“So if he isn’t a god, how are we supposed to get through to him?”
“Perhaps the Dread One needs be shown his power is not as great as he thinks.”
WillowWind shook her head. “We can’t fight him, he’s one of us.”
“And we might not be able to stop him if we did,” Elendil said.
“As a team we could,” Thauma said. “The Onami will stop him.”
WillowWind shook her head. “We can’t just let you attack him. He’s still a member of the Top Ten, even if he is full of himself. Besides, even if we did step aside and let you have at him, how many of you are you willing to sacrifice to prove your point?”
“She’s right about that,” Skida said. “There’s no way we could overwhelm Tropic without some serious casualties, maybe even deaths.”
“Then how do we handle this?” Thauma asked.
“There was one amongst you who could have harnessed the power to stand against the Dread One and not perish. The manner of both their deaths was the same, the powers aligned against them nearly identical. Their deaths made them capable of more than their bodies could accomplish before.”
“PhoenixHawk,” Thauma whispered, thoughts running through her mind, images of Aaron she had seen when she had died. Almost without thought her hand went to the six vertical blade scars on her stomach
“But if he’s dead…?” Celsius Bane asked.
“There is a way he might still return to thee,” Artemis said. “Though I cannot grant him the way as I did the Dread One.”
“Will Hades give him up, mother?” Shakti asked.
“Thine uncle is stubborn about those he hast taken unto his realm. Twas only through much bargaining that I was allowed to send Tropic back. He will not simply allow this to be done again.”
“Then, what?” Shadow Pain asked. “Do we just march into the land of the dead and grab Aaron and bring him back?”
“Thou must appeal to Hades’ nature.”
Shakti smiled. “He’s a gambler. He can’t pass up on a good challenge.”
“Thy words ring true, daughter. Though know this, thine uncle is not forgiving, nor is he easy. His task will be difficult, and his price for failure steep.”
“So how do we know he won’t just set some impossible task for us, and wait for us to fail?” the NyteHawk asked.
“Because he wouldst not threaten mine daughter in that manner. She shall keep the scales balanced, but the risk will still be high. It is possible not all shall return to this life.”
Thauma nodded. She almost couldn’t comprehend what she was hearing. Her life had been torn apart, ripped asunder just as her body had been in the Onami base. She had prayed, cried, railed against the gods for her loss, now she was being granted a chance for those prayers to be answered. Dizzy, she nearly staggered, but was steadied by both Skida and WillowWind.
“Ok,” Thauma said. “Send me alone. If I can’t make it back, I’ll pay whatever price there is to pay.”
“Thy heart is strong, but this challenge will be beyond any one of you. Thou must act as one, though thy strength shall be that of eight.”
Thoughts raced through Thauma’s mind. The others could read it on her face: Who do I take?
All of the Onami members stepped up to their leader, more than ready, wanting to be part of what needed to be done. Looking over their unity, their strength of heart and resolve, she felt a lump form in her throat. Swallowing it back she nodded to herself. Standing tall, she made her decisions.
“Shakti, I’ll need you to keep your uncle at bay. Shadow Pain, he’s your brother. NyteHawk, I’ll need my brother as well, and I know you won’t go anywhere without your two companions, so Sharuk and Father Stug, you’re with me as well.”
Looking over the group, Thauma started to speak again, but stopped when Skida laid a hand upon her shoulder.
Thauma started to say no, that this was a risk only the Onami was meant to take, but was stopped by a single, quiet word from the smaller woman. “Please?”
“Thauma,” Celsius said, “we loved him, too.”
Thauma reached out and hugged the couple fiercely. “You know I can’t ask this of you.”
“You didn’t,” Skida said.
Thauma bit her bottom lip, debating with herself but finally gave in.
“It is decided, then,” Artemis said. “If thou art stout enough for this, bring PhoenixHawk back to this plane, that perhaps we can bring the Dread One back to us as well, and save eons worth of plans from unraveling before our own eyes.”
“What are you talking about?” Lord Nikon asked.
“In thine lifetime, thou shalt find out.”
“Great, that clears it all up.”
Ignoring the comment, Artemis told the remaining Onami members that they must watch over the physical bodies of their companions while their souls were away from them.
“There are many upon this would that wouldst find horrible uses for them should they found. Their bodies will need to be upon the place of PhoenixHawk’s death for his return, so thou must take them there with all haste. Guard them well at all times.”
The chosen team gathered around Artemis, whose aura blazed brightly around them. Just before another blinding flash, Thauma heard WillowWind say, “Good luck.”
TO CHAPTER 9 >