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From the Ashes
Celsius Bane and Sharuk Haashkar lay atop a grassy hill, looking into the valley below. Spread out was an army of two distinct groups. Half were dressed in ancient Asian armor. Bamboo and wood mixed with metal, painted deep reds and blacks, horned helmets, spears and banners on pikes, all worn and carried in a tightly organized formation. The other half were ancient Greek, carrying shields and short swords, black chest plates, bare legs, sandaled feet.
“How many would you guess?” Sharuk asked.
“At least forty,” Bane replied.
“They wait for us.”
Celsius Bane nodded. “There’s no doubting that. The road leads right between their formations.”
The pair lingered in the sunlight only a moment longer before moving back into the trees to their waiting companions.
Thauma Guard watched the two tankers approach. Celsius’ right hand remained bare, his glove burned away within the sewer tunnels. Sharuk’s great axe was showing signs of wear as well.
Looking back over her shoulder, she noticed Shadow Pain resting against the base of a thick tree. Though her friend would never speak of it, it was obvious she carried some fatigue from her experience within the sewers as well.
This team, all friends, considered family, had fought together often in the past. Thauma could read the unspoken signs of wear and tear she knew they were beginning to feel. How many more tasks could Hades throw at them, and how long could they withstand the barrage? The thought of losing one of her friends here, their soul forever locked into the service of Hades, bothered her. She did all she could to bury the tension where nobody would notice, just as the others did with their fatigue.
“There’s no way we can fight them all,” Celsius Bane said as the team gathered around. “At least not both groups at once.”
“I thought there would be no insurmountable odds,” Guido said.
“There won’t be,” Shakti said. “There’s got to be more to this. Can we circle around them?”
Celsius shook his head. “They have scouts ranging throughout the valley. They’re blocking us intentionally, without doubt.”
“So we meet them head-on,” The NyteHawk said.
Shadow Pain stood and brushed the dust from her pants.
“Tell me about the groups.”
“Half are Samurai,” Sharuk said, “in traditional armor.”
“The others appear ancient Greeks, wearing black armor.”
“Ok, lets reason this out,” Shadow Pain said. “The Samurai are obvious, it’s a challenge for me. Why the Greeks?”
“I think I can explain that,” the NyteHawk said. “There is more to this than just our origins, apparently. When I was a kid, I was fascinated by Greek mythology. The Greeks in black would be the Myrmidons. Some called them the keepers of the dead. They were led by Achilles.”
“Great,” Thauma said. “Wasn’t he the son of a god?”
“Goddess, of sorts. Thetis, his mother, was of the Nerid, who were of Poseidon’s retinue. She was courted by Zeus, but prophecy said her son would become more powerful than his father, so Zeus feared wedding her. Instead she was wed to a mortal, the king of the Myrmidons.”
“So we’ve fought a God, now the son of a demi-goddess. How the hell do we fight an army like this?”
“With the daughter of a goddess,” Shakti said with a smile. “Besides, stories have a way of being exaggerated over thousands of years. He may not be as powerful as legend says.”
“True, but it’s not just Achilles, it’s his followers as well. And the Samurai. There are too many to fight at once. But I think we can get around that.”
To the NyteHawk, she said, “Walk with me.”
The pair moved and talked quietly. Shadow Pain looked somber, Thauma thought, trying to drive home the seriousness of whatever she was saying. Thauma knew her brother was full of bravado, and could see Shadow Pain working past that. Finally the pair returned.
“I’m not sure I like what I think you’re going to do,” Thauma said.
“Just get our backs,” Shadow Pain said. “We’ll handle it.”
“We need to work as a team,” Skida said. “Artemis was clear on that.”
“We do,” the NyteHawk said. “But there is a small army down there, made up of professional warriors. We won’t be able to beat them. That’s obvious. Hades said there would be nothing insurmountable, so it’s a puzzle. This is the solution.”
The group continued to protest, but finally gave in, falling into formation behind Shadow Pain and the NyteHawk. As the group approached the gathered warriors, all movement and noise stopped, the ranks forming up, blocking the road.
* * *
Shadow Pain moved before the assembled Samurai and knelt down, bowing formally, her forehead nearly touching the ground.
“Watashi wa Shadow Pain no Onami Strike Force,” she began. Continuing on in flawless Japanese she listed many of her accomplishments, the villains she had defeated, then finished by saying “I would meet you in honorable combat.”
A stout Japanese warrior moved to the front of the assembled Samurai. Wearing black and red armor, he simply bowed his head and said sharply “Musashi, Miyomoto desu.”
Shadow Pain bowed again, then rose.
“This shall be decided between us alone,” Musashi said.
Shadow Pain nodded, drawing her katana. The blade gleamed like a star, bright rays of sunlight reflected from the flawless metal.
“This blade was forged by the god Hephaestus. There is no other like it. If I fail, our quest is lost, and the blade is yours.”
Musashi nodded in agreement. “Should I fail, we will bar your way no more.”
* * *
The NyteHawk moved to the front of the Greeks, oblivious to the interchange of his teammate and the Samurai. A lone warrior, lean but corded with muscle and wearing black armor, moved to the front. A shield covered his left arm, a long spear in his right.
“Achilles,” the NyteHawk said.
The other nodded.
“You fight alone for your Myrmidons?”
“They yearn for battle.”
“Then let the issue of the Samurai be settled, and we shall grant them their wish.”
“You would stand against us?” Achilles asked.
“We have no choice. You bar our way, and we must pass.”
Achilles considered his opponent. “There are not many who would fight the Myrmidons with such odds. I admire your spirit.”
The NyteHawk simply nodded.
“Then let this be settled between us, as warriors.”
Achilles rapped the butt of his spear against the ground once, the Myrmidons forming a wide circle around their leader and the NyteHawk, perhaps twenty feet across. Celsius Bane and Sharuk Haashkar moved to break the circle, but the NyteHawk motioned them back.
“You must fight within the circle,” Achilles said. “Should you try to break or leave the circle before this is done, the Myrmidons will attack you and your group.”
The NyteHawk nodded again, all emotion gone from his face save an evil grin. “Let’s do it,” he said.
Miyomoto Musashi, one of history’s greatest swordsman, circled Shadow Pain slowly. In his hand he wielded a wooden sword, called a boken, having forsaken metal blades as a weakness in his latter years. Shadow Pain recalled his writing that it took true skill to kill a man with a wooden sword instead of steel.
Several times their swords clashed, the wooden blade swiftly deflecting the gleaming blur of Shadow Pain’s katana. Each stroke she tried was parried almost effortlessly.
“The samurai of old did not possess super powers,” Katsuhito Sensei had said. “They could not fly, nor become invisible or blast their enemies with energy their bodies could channel. The ancient samurai had only the hands they trained, the swords their smiths made, and the spirit they carried in their hearts.”
The words rang through Shadow Pain’s mind as she moved and parried, thrust and cut, never touching the legendary swordmaster. Twice the wooden sword slipped past her defenses, once leaving a welt on her left cheek, the other a stinging blow to her right forearm. Even moving as fast as she could, faster than most eyes could follow, Musashi seemed to know where her strikes would fall, the boken almost materializing out of nowhere to parry her strikes.
* * *
The tip of the spear whipped through the air where the NyteHawk had been less than a second before, the hero leaping high into the air, staying away from Achilles when possible. Thrusting his hands downward as he arced overhead, the blue energy pulsing in the veins in his chest flared out, shoving Achilles backwards. The leader of the Myrmidons stayed on his feet, though the force of the blast sent him sliding on the heels of his sandals.
The NyteHawk landed and gathered himself, launching a nearly solid ball of cerulean energy at his opponent, Achilles’ shield coming up and taking the blow. The shield buckled under the force of the blast, Achilles turning with the impact. The NyteHawk pressed with a series of smaller staccato attacks, peppering the exposed side of his foe.
Achilles discarded the shield and rushed into attack. Moving with the speed born of his famed heritage, he wove back and forth in a flowing wave, nearly too fast to see. The NyteHawk again leapt over, but was knocked aside as Achilles’ spear spun rapidly overhead.
Hitting the ground in a jarring roll, the NyteHawk came to his feet and threw a backhanded arc of energy at Achilles. The Greek dodged the attack and pressed, the spear spinning and thrusting in.
Dodging as fast as he could, it was all the NyteHawk could do to get out of range of the fighter. Leaning back to avoid being impaled, he felt the crushing blow of the butt of the spear against his abdomen. The spell he had used that hardened his skin into an almost solid shell helped lessen the impact, but the blow staggered the blaster.
Achilles rushed into the opening, the spear point narrowly missing the NyteHawk’s chest. A red nimbus bloomed around the NyteHawk’s fist as it slammed into the Greek’s chest, sending Achilles flying backwards to the far edge of the circle.
* * *
Sweat ran down Shadow Pain’s forehead, stinging her eyes. She subconsciously controlled her breathing, but the fight was wearing on her. Musashi’s armor showed several cuts that belied the legendary fighter’s fatigue as well.
The two clashed again, katana and boken glancing off one another in a deadly dance. Musashi saw an opening and quick as a striking snake whipped the tip of the boken in and out, a loud crack ringing out as the blade snapped into Shadow Pain’s unprotected left bicep.
Shadow Pain let out an involuntary yelp of pain, her arm hanging limp at an odd angle. She knew immediately it was broken. Refusing to give in, she parried the flurry of attacks that came at her desperately, gaining some distance to regroup, sagging to a knee.
She could see the faces of her teammates wanting to rush in and help her, but they had to know if they did all hell would break loose, and the Samurai would attack in force. Her mind recalled visions of Aaron as they had trained and grown together, so many years ago. Though she had not let on to the others, her heart had swelled at the hope of seeing her brother again.
She closed her eyes and tried to focus. She couldn’t let them all down. Not her team. Not her brother. In her center she found her calm, her Ki, and the secret that Hephaestus had given her. She could feel the sword in her hand, not just as an extension of her arm but of her being. The Samurai had been said to believe their spirit melded with their sword. She knew this was why she couldn’t touch Musashi. Even with a boken he was as one with the blade.
But the gleaming blade in her hand was more than just a mortal sword. The God of the Forge had touched her, taken a piece of her and put it into the blade, bound it to her. The light from the blade was not the reflection of that around her, but of that inside of her. It was in that instant that she found what she needed.
Musashi pressed in to attack, moving for an opening that could finish the fight. As his boken swung down, Shadow Pain reached deep into her center, focusing her Ki, building it will all of her will. As the wooden blade whipped down towards her exposed neck, she swung back. Not blocking with the side of the blade as one would to parry, she cut directly against the wooden sword, something that would have shattered most blades. The sword in her hand sliced cleanly through the boken, Musashi’s momentum carrying the strike all the way down, though the cut wood never touched Shadow Pain.
Following the arc of the upward stroke, Shadow Pain reversed her wrist, whipping the katana in a glowing arc, stopping with the blade resting against the side of Musashi’s neck.
The pair stayed in the pose momentarily, taking in what had occurred. A slight murmur could be heard throughout the Samurai ranks as they looked on in disbelief. Musashi stood, then bowed to Shadow Pain sharply. Moving to the head of the Samurai ranks, the group moved to the side of the road, allowing passage to the heroes.
Skida and Thuama reached Shadow Pain as she started to sag, propping her up. Skida placed her hands around the break in Shadow Pain’s arm, the green glow of her aura infusing the muscle, helping the bone begin to mend.
“This will be tender for quite a while,” she said. “Bone breaks take a while to heal, even with my help. I hope this was it for us, because you don’t need to do anymore with that arm for a while.”
Shadow Pain managed a weary smile. “I’m still good for the fight,” she said before she passed out.
* * *
Achilles and the NyteHawk were trading blows, the spear of the Greek whipping around the blaster’s body, energy lashing out in return. The NyteHawk shoved Achilles back with a vicious blast, Achilles rolling backwards dissipating the momentum.
The NyteHawk followed, his hands glowing red, preparing to strike as the Greek came to his feet, but was unprepared for the speed at which Achilles recovered. As he moved in, Achilles thrust from the ground while rolling, the tip of the spear catching the NyteHawk in the belly, below his left ribs and sliding all the way through his back.
The NyteHawk heard his sister yell and knew she would be trying to rush into the fight behind him. Achilles regained his feet from the roll, still holding the butt of the spear. The NyteHawk used the powerful magic enhanced muscles in his legs to push himself down the length of the spear and grasped Achilles chest armor at the neck gap.
Blood running down his chin, the NyteHawk slammed his glowing fist into Achilles head over and over, the black helm bending then flying off of the Greek’s head. Still the fist pounded away, still Achilles remained on his feet.
Keeping his grip on the gap in the armor, the NyteHawk gathered his remaining strength and swung his left foot behind Achilles and kicked down and back, a bright blast of energy focusing at the point where his boot swept the back of Achilles’ heel. The Greek buckled at the sweep, the NyteHawk coming down on top of him, raining more blows until it was clear Achilles had ceased the fight.
Standing from his fallen foe, the NyteHawk reached behind him and snapped the spear off just behind his back, then jerked the shaft out with his other hand. Blood poured from the wound as he sagged to his knees.
Father Stug was there before he hit the ground, catching his friend in mechanical arms. The heroes surrounded him as Skida pressed her hands into the wound, mumbling to herself as she worked to staunch the flow of blood. The NyteHawk’s eyes fluttered as he fought to remain conscious, seeing Thauma standing over him with tears streaming down her cheeks.
“Damn it Rosh, you always rush in. If you die I’m going to be so pissed off.”
Smiling weakly he replied through bloodstained lips, “You’re not getting rid of me that easily.”
Skida continued to work on him until the blood flow had stopped from both the entrance and exit wounds. When she was done Celsius helped her stand, as Guido did for the NyteHawk. Thauma added support to Shadow Pain and the heroes walked as one past the gathered warriors of Hades.