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From the Ashes:

Chapter 10

            The long climb up the stairs took little time for the heroes, entering the large arched cave mouth.  Sharuk brought up the rear, the sky disappearing behind the group as he set his foot upon the path.  Behind them now lay an impenetrable black mist.  Ahead the cave walls seemed to emit a blue-green glow.

            “It’s like the caves under Perez Park that lead into the Circle of Thorns city,”  Celsius Bane said.

            “Orenbega,” Thauma Guard said.  “It’s what News Flash was looking for when we ran into the Dark Lord.”

            The caves twisted and turned, glowing crystal fragments deep in the rock walls.  Streams crossed the path, pooling water in uneven spots.  Celsius Bane led the heroes, Shadow Pain close behind.  Shakti, the NyteHawk, and Guido stayed ahead of Thauma and Skida, Sharuk bringing up the rear, guarding the group from a rear attack with his massive battleaxe.

            The passage wound down into an open cavern, filled with several large creatures milling about.  The tallest of the humanoid beings stood over ten feet tall and seemed to be made of crystal shards.  Smaller beings with tree-branch like limbs and mushroom topped head conversed with thick beings made of brown stone.

            “Devouring Earth,” Skida said.

            “You’ve seen these before?” Sharuk asked. 

            “They come from an area south of Founder’s Falls, through what used to be Eden Park,” Skida replied.  “On the far side of Eden is a gateway to their ‘Hive’, where the Hamidon resides.  It’s a huge, single-celled organism that spawns these things, and they worship it as a god.  Some say it was created as a by-product of Crey’s chemical dumping, others say the Earth itself rebelled against humans and pollution and created the Hamidon to fight back.  Either way, they hate human beings above anything else.”

            Thauma shuddered.  “And they can call up those damned swarms of bees that are all over Crey’s Folly.”

            “Are these the best that Hades has to offer?” the NyteHawk scoffed.

            “He’s testing us,” Shakti said.  “He wants to see how we work, what to throw at us next.”

            “Sort of like a chess game,” Guido said.  “He’s feeling us out, putting his pawns out first.”


            Guido jacked a round into the shotgun portion of the advanced Assault Weapon he carried.

            “Let’s checkmate his ass.”

            Black tendrils of power seethed around Thauma Guard’s arms as she set about weaving protective force bubbles around her teammates.  Skida spread her hands low, a green aura spreading over the heroes, a feeling like a hard adrenaline rush pumped through them, their enhanced metabolisms increasing their ability to heal and stay in a fight.

            “Fight them here,” Celsius said, indicating the opening to the large cavern from the tunnel they had come down.  “Sharuk and I can draw them together, and the tight opening will keep you safely behind us.”

            “Give me a sec,” Guido said.

            The small man began removing small devices from the belt he wore, placing them at regular intervals ten feet from the opening of the cave.  When they were all positioned to his satisfaction, he activated them, a low beeping coming from each one.

            “Trip mines,” he said.  “When they get over top of them I’ll set them off.  It’ll take out half what we can see in this room.” 

            Celsius stood behind Guido and pointed a palm towards the small mine field, the ground beneath the devices freezing into a slick patch. 

            “That will make it more fun for them,” he said.

            Flames sprang to life all over the man’s body as he looked to Sharuk, who nodded in return.  The two moved in different directions into the cavern, both of extraordinary constitution, able to take more punishment that the rest, and attacked the Devouring Earth creatures, their voices laying out taunts and jibes, attracting the attention of the mutated villains.

            In very little time the two returned nearly simultaneously, running ahead of fifteen to twenty Devouring Earth menaces. 

            “This is going to be more fun than we thought,” Celsius said.  “One of the Greater Devoured that leads these things is with them.”

            As the villains charged at the assembled heroes Shadow Pain’s katana rasped free of its scabbard.  A red nimbus sprang to life around the NyteHawk’s hands, flames engulfing Shakti’s.

            “Wait for it,” Guido said.

            The charge of the villains led them directly onto the ice patch Celsius had created, the lead crystalline beings slipping and falling over one another, causing a pile up as those behind tried to stop but were unable to. 

            The detonations below them as Guido set off the mines rocked the cavern walls.  Shards of crystal, plant, and rock flew in all directions, bowling over those who had not slipped upon the iced and landed on the mines.

            Fire, energy, and a hail of slugs from the heroes poured over the Devouring Earth.  Shadow Pain danced around them, cutting through bough-like limbs with ease.  The last of the Devouring Earth followed around a gray-skinned, muscular being with dagger-like teeth.  From around the being a swarm of bees buzzed towards the heroes, as the crystal creatures around their leader threw blades of rock at the invaders.

            The bubbles around the heroes turned the projectiles, but only slowed down the mutant bees.  Guido sprayed a wall of fire from his flamethrower that was matched by Shakti, scattering the stinging insects.

            Thauma sent a wave of dark energy at the Devouring Earth, catching the last of the beings in howling tentacles that sprung from the floor of the cave.  Undaunted by the horror of the things around their legs, the mutant creatures were immobilized and became easy targets for the heroes, who mowed them down like tall grass.

            Only the Greater Devoured remained.  The beast howled in rage at the heroes, spitting a gout of green poison at them.

            Sharuk leapt upon the thing, his axe cleaving powerful strikes, but glancing off the thick hide of the beast.  The two muscular beings battled back and forth, Celsius moving up and slamming a blade of ice that had formed in his hand into the beast as well.

            The Greater Devoured beast was powerful, but the combined might of the eight heroes took the creature from the fight almost effortlessly.

            “If that was a test, I’d say we passed,” Guido said.

            “It will get much harder from here,” Shakti said. 

They all knew Hades would not trifle with them for long.


            As the heroes made their way deeper into the mountain, the came upon a large steel door barring their way.  Pushing through, the path behind again disappeared, their surroundings changing in a dizzying instant.

            Lights shone overhead in the dirty passageway, green muck flowed through the waterways set in the center of the tunnels.  Smaller side passages and ducts allowed waterways from different passages to mingle.  The smell of raw sewage was almost overwhelming.

            “You’ve got to be kidding me,” Guido said.

            “I hate being in the sewers,” Shakti added.

            The slime covered brick passageways led around large pipes, through archways leading to confusing intersections.  Nothing signaled a clear direction for the heroes, making moving through the maze of tunnels slow and confusing.  The NyteHawk occasionally scored a wall with a glowing hand, marking passages they had been through so they would not retrace their steps.

            As they moved along, another smell crept into their noses: death and decay.

            “Vahzilok,” Shadow Pain said, wrinkling her nose.

            Rounding a corner the group found several huge lumbering cadavers, reanimated corpses put together from pieces by Doctor Vahzilok’s minions.  Ten of the beasts hovered around two Reapers, living followers of the twisted Vahzilok trained in organ removal and limb amputation.  A Mortificator, another living follower trained in the reanimation of cadavers, presided over the Reapers.

            Slipping back into the passageway from which they had just emerged, the NyteHawk said, “If it’s all going to be like this, it’s too easy.”

            “Don’t get complacent,” Shakti warned.  “Something will pop up, I promise you.”

            Celsius Bane nodded acknowledgment of the warning.  “Same as before, let Sharuk and I take lead?”

            Thauma noted the nods of all involved, and the team fell about the routine they had followed for years, working as a well-oiled unit.

            Celsius and Sharuk rounded the corner and leapt over the cadavers, landing in front of the Mortificator.  The slow moving cadavers turned towards the heroes attacking their leader only to be attacked from behind as the other heroes rounded the corner.

            One of the Reapers pulled a rusty crossbow from his back and began firing at the heroes.  Many of the bolts were turned easily by Thauma Guard’s force fields, but one slipped through and pierced the NyteHawk’s shoulder.

            The NyteHawk grunted in pain, staggering back a step.  He grasped the bolt in a glowing hand and pulled, the projectile coming free with a grating pop and stream of blood. 

            Skida Marink moved behind him, placing a hand over the wound, pouring her healing energy into it, feeling the magically hardened skin of the blaster close beneath her palm.

            The remaining Reaper and Mortificator laid about them with rusty cleavers, inflicting minor wounds on the heroes that Thauma and Skida quickly healed.  Shadow Pain clove her way through the cadavers, leaving twitching limbs cut from bodies littering the floor of the sewer.

            As the heroes dispatched the Mortificator, the last to fall, the water in the sewage passageway began to boil as several human sized beings of fire leapt forth.  Caught off guard, the heroes fell back from the onslaught of ash, flame, and heat the fire beings unleashed.

            Though able to withstand heat and flame more than most, the powerful beings taxed even Sharuk’s and Celsius’ abilities.  Celsius Bane spread an ice patch out beneath the fire beings, trying to take them off balance, but the ice was easily swept away in a wave of heat.

            Shakti and Guido poured on their own attacks, literally fighting fire with fire, but to no avail.

            “Fall back!” Thauma shouted.

            The team fell back into the smaller passageway, around their corner, still being pressed by the attackers.   One of the flame-men reached into the brick wall, pulling a molten ball of stone away and hurled it at the heroes. 

            Thauma threw her hands in front of her, a wall of force turning the burning projectile.

            “Try to get them into the water!”  She shouted.

            “They came out of the water,” the NyteHawk yelled in response.

            “But they’re avoiding it now.  Try to force them into it.”

            Sharuk and Celsius Bane rushed around the corner, pressing the beings of fire from the back.  The NyteHawk threw a wave of energy into the four beings, pushing them back a step.  Shadow Pain was moving around the beings at blinding speed, dodging molten stone projectiles.

            Slowly the heroes pushed until the first of the beings was forced into the sewer water.  Struggling against the heroes it tried frantically to get out of the water, which boiled at its feet, but the energy of the being was quickly and obviously dimishing.

            “Keep him there!” Shakti shouted.

            Thauma tried catching the being in vaporous tentacles but they had no effect.  Only through sheer force did the heroes keep the being in the water while fighting to force more into it.

            Skida moved around the heroes, a green aura spreading out from her, healing burns and minor wounds.  Thauma worked on reinforcing her force fields, her hands frantically weaving dark power.

            The fight was exhausting, but working as one the heroes were able to force and hold the fire beings in the water until their power dissipated fully.

            “What the hell were those?” Guido asked.

            “Fire imps,” Shakti said.

            Celsius Bane shook his head.  “I’ve seen fire imps before; they’re only about knee high.”

            “Fire imps humans can create are,” Shakti replied.  “I have a bad feeling we’ll find out those weren’t created by a human.”

            “I don’t think I like the sound of that,” Thauma said.

            Shakti shook her head.  “Neither do I.  I have a hunch what my uncle is throwing at us, but I won’t know for sure until we get there.”


            “The bottom of this sewer.”

            The group continued moving through the poorly lit tunnels, the thick muck and slime covering their costumes, the smell infiltrating their noses, permeating their senses.  Thauma Guard had worked with every member of the group in Paragon’s vast sewer network at one time or another, and knew the nearly overwhelming smell was a mild discomfort that each would put aside, treating it as if it weren’t there, but knowing it would be with them for days or weeks after leaving the tunnels.

            They fought through more of Vahzilok’s minions, twice encountering Eidolons, the highest ranking of the twisted Doctor’s followers.  Wreathed in leather from head to toe, covering the scars of their transformations, the Eidolons were humans, augmented with the severed and reattached limbs of heroes and villains, giving the Eidolons dark powers.  The negative energy the beings exuded drained the will and stamina from the heroes, but still Vahzilok’s followers were no match for the combined might directed against them.

            After dispatching the second Eidolon the heroes were again ambushed by man-sized fire imps, the living flames seeming to leap from the cracks in the wall, the leaking pipes, and water itself.  The heroes were taxed, but slowly began to push and hold the fire golems in the water.  From beneath the fire imps feet in the water another leapt forth, larger than the rest, not made of flame, but of glowing red and silver metal.

            The molten metal creature drew its hand back and hurled a ball of glowing hot metal at the heroes.  The heroes scattered, avoiding the projectile, but were showered from behind when the molten steel hit the wall with a sickening splat and sent droplets of hot steel in all directions. 

            Sharuk drove his massive battle axe through the thing’s torso below where the ribs would have been, a spray of hot metal following the stroke.  Celsius Bane moved up alongside Sharuk, blocking the steel imp from the rest of the group.

            “Get rid of the fire imps!” Celsius shouted over his shoulder.  “We’ll hold this one until they’re cleared.”

            Shadow Pain and the NyteHawk attacked the fire imps with all of their strength, pushing and holding the attackers in the boiling sewer waters.  Shakti and Guido kept several paces back, lashing out at any of the imps that pushed past the others towards the edge of the water, adding a second layer of defense.

            Celsius and Sharuk fought hard to contain the steel imp.  The creature’s strength was measurably greater than its fellows, its attacks having the secondary impact of leaving hot metal on the victim that could not simply be brushed away as flames could.

            Skida and Thauma rushed back and forth, frantically working to keep their friend’s from harm, turning attacks, healing burns and wounds.

            The heroes’ costumes smoked in places, had holes burned through in more.  When the last fire imp’s strength failed in the water, the group turned to Celsius and Sharuk.  Celsius was wreathed in flames, his own inner heat helping to drive back some of the steel imp’s.  Sharuk’s battle axe was covered in solidified rivulets of molten metal.

            Again attacking as a single unit worked to overwhelm the imp, but not before Celsius Bane landed a blow on the creature that allowed his hand to pass through, coming back covered in hardening molten metal.  Grunting in pain, he fell back from the imp, staggering against the wall.  The steel creature saw the gap and tried to pursue, seeing a way to get at the rest of the heroes.

            As the imp rushed towards the fallen Celsius Bane, the NyteHawk slammed a blast of cerulean energy into it’s back, followed by the staccato beat of Guido’s  assault rifle. The creature staggered into the water, its energy dissipating as had its fire brethren, thought not as greatly.

            Celsius leapt into the water, his uninjured hand dipping below the surface, the water freezing solid in an expanding block of ice around him, encasing the legs of the steel imp.  The ice steamed and melted, only to be refrozen again by Celsius Bane.

            Seeing the imp struggle, the heroes closed the gap and held the creature in the frozen muck until it had become a solidified statue, flash cooled by the disgusting sewer waters.

            Skida was looking at the solidified steel encasing her husband’s wounded hand.  The flames he called from within encircled the metal, keeping it red, but weren’t enough to burn it off.

            “Shakti, I need your help,” the tanker said.

            The small, red haired woman looked at her friend, concern in her eyes.  “You sure?  I’m not sure I can keep it just on the surface.”

            Celsius nodded.  “Burn it off.”  

            Shakti nodded and placed her hands on the tanker’s forearm, just above the hardening steel.

            “This is going to suck a bit,” she said.

            “Everyone else step back, please,” Celsius said.

            Flames poured from her arms over the hot metal, heating it back to shimmering molten form.

            Gritting his teeth beneath the shroud he wore, Celsius nodded to Shakti, who stepped back quickly.  The tanker turned from his friends and raised his hand above his shoulder, then brought it down fast and snapped it back up faster, spraying the water and floor below with hot metal.

            Skida moved back to her husband’s side, her hands enfolding the red welts that covered his below the burned away glove.  Concentrating she poured her energies into the wounds, whispering softly, willing the wounds to heal.  When she let go, Celsius Bane’s hand was free from the blistered burns.

            “We’re almost to the bottom of this place,” Thauma said to the group as they stopped for a short while to regain their strength.

            “How do you know?” the NyteHawk asked.

            “I can feel it,” Thauma replied.

            “Something is radiating power not too far below us,” Skida added.

            “What?” Guido asked.

            “I don’t know.”

            “I think I do,” Shakti said.  “Another of my mother’s brethren.  Hephaestus, the God of Fire and the Forge.”

            “What makes you think that?” Sharuk asked.

            “The fire imps, the steel imp, they epitomize his power.”

            “Great,” Guido said.  “We have to fight a God, here, in their own realm.  Will our mediporters work this far out?”

            The NyteHawk grinned at his friend’s comment.

            Shakti just shook her head and continued.  “I find it odd, though, that he’d be involved in this.  Why him?  He’s known throughout history as being peace-loving.  He’s the patron of metal smiths and weavers, of all things.”

            The group was quiet for several moments until Skida spoke up.

            “I think it has to do with us.  Hades is sending things at us that have to do with who we are.”

            “Then why Vahzilok?” Sharuk asked.

            “Because of me,” Skida replied.

            The group looked to the small healer.

            “She doesn’t like to talk a lot about it,” Celsius Bane said.  “But Dr. Vahzilok is responsible for her creation.”

            “Really?” The NyteHawk asked, astonished.

            Skida nodded, a sad look on her face.

            “It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” the NyteHawk said.  “Crey tuned my powers.  It’s not like they’re any pinnacle of honor.”

            “And,” Thauma added, “it proves that Vahzilok’s knowledge can be used to create something beautiful.”

            A smile played across the small healer’s face.  “Thank you,” she said softly.

            The group reached the bottom of the sewer, a massive room opening up with a raised network of pumps and controls.  Standing amidst a mob of his followers was the massive villain himself, Doctor Vahzilok.  Looking like a product of his own creation, his head seemed far too small for the massive amounts of muscle he had grafted to his own body.  His right arm ended in a massive scalpel sewn around the muzzle of a massive assault rifle similar to the one Guido carried slung across his back.  Scars and stitch lines covered his entire bare, repulsive torso.  Several Eidolons flanked Mortificators and Reapers, gathered behind ten or more hulking corpses.  Several of the lumbering sewn-together beasts had large explosive charges strapped to their backs.

            Behind Vahzilok on a further raised dais stood Hephaestus.  Slightly hunch backed, the muscular being worked over an anvil glowing white with power.  A furnace behind roared with a contained inferno.

            “I thought Vahzilok was still alive,” Guido said, slipping back into the tunnel the team had emerged from.

            “Time is irrelevant here,” Shakti said.  “We could feasibly meet ourselves if Hades wishes it.”

            “How can that be?” The NyteHawk asked.

            “Because the universe is not a constant as humans see it.  Hades could twist it around as he sees fit.  He probably will throw things at us that we can understand, to make it a challenge.  If we are simply overwhelmed, what fun is that for him?”

            The NyteHawk shook his head.  “I don’t even want to start thinking about time travel and quantum reality.  This is already giving me a headache.”

            Several of the others nodded.

            “Ok, so we just accept it as it comes at us,” Celsius Bane said.  “Deal with each encounter as we would anything else.”

            The team agreed.

            “Now that the confusing part is out of the way, how do we deal with the mob in there, much less the two in charge?”

            “If we can keep the zombies clustered and get one to set off the explosive, the rest should follow in a chain reaction,” Guido said.

            “That will take out most of the lumbering muscle,” Thauma said.

            “We have to think the Eidolons will send the others in at us, then rush us when we’re up to our necks in rusty cleavers,” Celsius said. 

            “That’s when we’ll start seeing the fire imps show up,” Skida said.

            “Can we draw them all back here?” Thauma asked.  “Bottleneck them so we are only fighting a few at a time?”

            “Probably,” Sharuk said.  “But then we have to deal with Doc Vahz and Hephaestus.”

            “They’ll be more than a handful all by themselves,” Celsius said.  “We need to hit the minions and take them out first.”

            “What will stop Hephaestus from throwing more imps at us all the time?”

            “We have to destroy the forge,” Shakti said.  “Take away the source of power.  Then the anvil.”

            “This will be loads of fun,” Celsius said.

            Thauma quickly worked her force fields around her teammates, Skida adding her own empowerments.  When they were ready, Celsius and Sharuk moved into the open, rushing the gathered zombies.    As the heroes approached the lumbering beasts several wretched a cloud of poisonous vitriol, the force fields turning most of the acid.  The two, having gotten the attention of the villains, rushed back towards the rest of the group. 

The lumbering beasts followed, sloshing through six inches of muck.  From behind the two heroes came a muted thump, a grenade sailing over their heads to land amidst the zombies.  The explosion was muted by the shallow sewer water, but set off two of the explosives on the back of the embalmed cadavers, a chain reaction following, sending rotten smelling pieces of flesh in all directions.

Chaos reigned as crossbow bolts shot out at the tightly grouped heroes, Guido answering with a hail of rifle slugs.  Shakti and the NyteHawk sent a barrage of energy and flame towards the villains.  As the Reapers and Mortificators rushed in, the Eidolons attacked with waves of dark power.  Thauma enveloped her group in a massive bubble around them, blocking the entrance to their tunnel, mitigating much of the dark power with her own.

The tunnel was rocked by a massive explosion, the brick walls shaking with the impact of the slug the massive leader of the Vahzilok launched at the heroes.  Celsius, Shadow Pain, and Sharuk held the villains at the entrance to the tunnel, fighting desperately to keep their companions from a melee fight.  The blasters pressed hard, taking down the living minions, though the Eidolons proved stronger.  With Doctor Vahzilok adding support himself, the heroes were sorely pressed.

From behind the villains the forge flared brightly to life, flames jumping in all directions, forming into the man sized and shaped imps that rushed to add to the heroes woes.

Though fighting a common enemy, the fire imps impeded the Eidolons from reaching the heroes, pressing forward yet presenting a fire hazard to Vahzilok’s followers as well.

The heroes took advantage of the situation, allowing the tanks to keep the attackers safe, the rest including the defenders, pouring attacks on the Eidolons.  Shadow Pain slipped around behind the Eidolons, cutting the legs from one at the knee, dropping the villain writhing into the muck.  The fire imps stepped onto and over the fallen Eidolon, the leather coverings burning, taking it from the fight forever.


            Her enemy down, Shadow Pain concentrated, fading from view, and raced around behind the undead and their leader, rushing the god of the Forge.  Hephaestus’ hammer was coming down repeatedly on the glowing forge, metal bending to his will, shaping another of the steel imps.  Shadow Pain knew if the God were able to send a multitude of them into the fight, they would push her embattled team beyond its limits.

            Concentrating, relaxing her breathing, she brought everything within her to her center, focused it, building her internal strength, her ki, to its peak.  She had no idea what reaction her plan would bring about, her only hope was to take the possibility of more of the powerful imps from the fray.

            Timing herself to opposite Hephaestus’s swing of the hammer, she rushed the forge and anvil, katana raised above her head.  As the god’s hammer swung up, she leapt, bringing her weight and full strength down, seeing the god’s eyes upon her as she struck, she knew he had seen her approach fully.  A faint smile played upon the god’s lips.

            The katana struck the anvil, sinking deep into the glowing metal.  A blinding blast of force exploded outward, bowling over everything in the room.  The sewage that covered the floor sprayed outward from the blast, splattering the walls.  The concussion wave sent the remaining zombies and living Vazhilok followers flying, slamming into the brick walls and steel pipes.

            The heroes were blasted back into the tunnel from which they fought, but quickly regained themselves.  Quickly making their way back to the atrium, they found only Doctor Vahzhilok and one Eidolon standing.

            The full weight of the heroes fell upon the remaining villains.  Dodging the massive scalpel and projectiles from the Doctor, the team fought as one.  The fight was long, and difficult, but without the weight of the minions or the imps sent by Hephaestus, the massive villain was eventually driven to his knees, then knocked completely from the fight.

            Shadow Pain was seated with her back against one of the muck stained walls behind the dais upon which Vahzhilok had stood, Hepaestus next to her.  The hunch-backed god placed his hand upon the small woman’s shoulder, his power flowing into her, quickening her recovery.

            “Twas a brilliant stroke, young hero,” Hephaestus said.

            Approaching the god, Shatki asked “Uncle, why would you do this?  You were never one to fight.”

            “Tis but a game, my neice.  Certainly Hades intends to win, and my minions would have pressed you with all of their, and my, might, but still is just a gamblers game.”

            “You saw me coming,” Shadow Pain said.  “You could have stopped me easily.”

            A look of disbelief covered the god’s distorted features.  “Me?  I am but a cripple.  You move far too fast for such an old man as me to stop.”

            Shadow Pain chuckled slightly, knowing the god was lying.  “My katana?” She asked looking around.

            “Destroyed when you broke my anvil,” The god said, nodding towards the cracked tool next to the cooling forge.

            Shadow Pain climbed to her feet, helped up by Thauma, and walked towards the forge, scanning the area.  Reaching down, amidst the debris covering the floor, she picked up the hilt of her shattered sword.

            Thauma rested a hand upon Shadow Pain’s shoulder, knowing the sword had meant more to the small scrapper than any simple tool.

            Hephaestus limped over towards her.  Though he was considered small of the gods, he still stood well above Shadow Pain’s head.

            “Fear not, young one,” he said, taking the hilt from her hands.

            Walking to the forge, a bright orange flame burst in the palm of his free hand, which he thrust deeply into the forge, bringing it back to life with ease.  Turning to the split anvil, he knelt, wrapping his hands around the two sides.  With a strength belied by his bent and hunched stature, he pressed the split together, sealing the crack.

            Mumbling words of power, the gods hands glowed white, the energy sinking into the anvil.  Smoothing the edges, the crack disappeared and the anvil was once again whole, glowing with the energy of its master.

            Winking at the gathered heroes, the god reached into the forge with a bare hand, pulling a glob of glowing metal, spreading it out upon the avil in front of him.  Picking up his hammer, the god quickly shaped the metal into a glowing orange blade, which he bound seamlessly to the shattered remains of the katana.  The strokes of the hammer sent sparks flying, the clanging echoing throughout the tunnels in which they stood, the god flipped the blade over and over, beating out a melody on the hot steel.

            When he was done, he thrust the glowing weapon into a trough of water next to the anvil.  When he removed it, the blade shone like a small sun, reflecting every ray of light that struck it in a tiny rainbow.   Flipping the glowing sword around with the reverence of an artist handling his work, he presented it to Shadow Pain.

            Shadow Pain sank to her knees before the god, placing her forehead to the ground before the anvil, then sat up and accepted the blade with both hands.

            “Your reward for defeating me in battle, lady hero,” Hephaestus said.

            Shadow Pain regarded the amazing blade, hefted it, feeling the balance and weight, knowing it matched her like no other weapon forged could.

            “I am speechless,” she said.  “I cannot express what this brings to my heart.”

            “Use it well,” the god said.  “There will come a time when all of your strengths, and lives, will truly be put to the test, and the fate of your world will rest upon your shoulders.”

            “Great,” Father Stug said.  “No pressure.”

            Turning to Shakti, Hehpaestus said, “Take care, my niece.  I hope your family is well.”

            “They are, uncle,” Shakti replied.  “Thank you.”

            The god of the forge nodded to the heroes, then closes his eyes and faded from view.  The room around them spun into blackness, coalescing into the mouth of a cave upon a hillside.  Below them lay a forest, a path cut cleanly through the woods.  Birds circled overhead, the smell of the sea hung in the air.  In the distance an ocean spread to the horizon.

            “Is that it?” the NyteHawk asked.  “Did we make it through that easily?”

            “I wouldn’t have thought so,” Thauma said.

            Shakti looked around.  “No, we are still inside of the mountain.  Had we won this challenge my mother would be here to greet us.”

            “Where to now?” Sharuk asked.

            “I’d say we follow that road,” Celsius Bane said, nodding towards the path through the trees.


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