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EPILOGUE

    Lady Cleo stood unmoving in the warehouse’s large storeroom, arms by her sides, breathing heavily, sweat glistening on her chest, her breasts held snug and close in her tight uniform. The heroine was clad in black, her shapely figure encased in leather, her top cut low, exposing the deep distracting line of her cleavage. The trousers appeared even tighter, clinging to the perfect roundness of her behind and laced down each leg from waist to cuff, her flawless, alabaster skin showing through and giving the impression she wore nothing underneath.

    She looked impassively at the criminals strewn unconscious about her and she grinned slowly. She turned and began to move to the exit when her team communicator beeped, the bud buzzing in her ear. “Cleo here,” she sighed. It was almost ten o’clock and she had been in the building for almost an hour. She was looking forward to home, a bath and sleep, but duty calls at the most annoying times, she mused.

    “Cleo,” Dr. Silver’s voice came over the communicator clearly, “what’s your status?”

    “Just cleared out a Freakshow nest in...,” she heard the telltale crackle of energy behind her and she spun around in time to see three Freaks climbing to their feet. “Hold on,” she smiled, lips pulled back from her clenched, gleaming teeth, “...rez.”

    “Holding,” came the reply. Silver knew exactly what she meant. The Freakshow were more machine than man, a gang that worshiped technology...so much so they sacrificed themselves, grafting blades, hammers, power units and the like onto and into their bodies. Once defeated, there was a better than average chance that their internal systems would merely “reboot” and they would just resurrect. The heroes had come to simply call it “rez” and more than one rookie crime fighter had defeated a Freakshow goon and rushed into an alley or building only to find himself attacked from behind by the same man he had just overcome. An emergency teleport to the hospital soon followed, accompanied by some hard learned experience.

    Lady Cleo faced the three hoodlums, snapping her arms down. Three claws jutted from the knuckles of both hands, extending out and clicking when they reached their full length. She shook her head back, whipping her short red hair from her face, eyes never leaving her adversaries. “C’mon, boys...I already kicked your asses once tonight,” she said through a menacing smile. “Can’t we all just get along?”

    The three Freaks looked at each other, sneering. The Tank, a huge smasher, motioned with one of the enormous, mallet-like hammers grafted to his hands, “KILL HER!” he screamed. “KILL THAT BITCH!”

    “Oh, now you’ve gone and done it,” Cleo shook her head. “Only my friends can call me ‘bitch’,” and she launched herself at the three of them, the joyful grimace of violence on her lips only serving to make her more savagely beautiful.

    A Metal Swiper met her head on. Where his hands had been were now grafted huge blades of incredibly sharp steel. They flashed at the heroine so quickly they left a trail of reflected light in the air behind them. Over and over they slashed, down, up, overhead and from below, trying to pierce the scrapper’s defenses.

    Lady Cleo’s hard claws clanged as they blocked the enraged man’s strikes, sparks flaring as they viciously danced about the warehouse. An edge jutted out and scratched Cleo’s cheek, a thin arc of blood trailing behind in the air. “Bastard,” Cleo whispered, the cut healing almost as soon as it bled.

    The Swiper came on, emboldened when he saw the crimson stain at the tip of his knife. He swung left and right, spinning and twirling, finally coming down with both blades at the heroine’s head, wanting to split her in two. Suddenly, his evil leer turned to shock.

    As the sharp appendages came toward her, Cleo blocked with both clawed hands, stopping the blades between her talons. She smirked at the Freakshow gangster and, with a hard flick of her wrists, shattered the man’s knives. He screamed in agony, the blades having been grafted into the nerve-endings of his amputated hands, doubling over in pain and shock. As he leaned in, Cleo struck him a hard uppercut with her elbow, lifting the criminal from his feet and knocking him unconscious. He tumbled senseless to the concrete floor and lay among his cold broken steel and teeth.

    She felt a heavy thud behind her and somersaulted forward, barely getting out of the way of the Tank Smasher’s huge hammer as it cracked the concrete floor she had just occupied. As the scrapper rolled ahead, out of the corner of her eye she saw the last of her revived foes, a Juicer Freak, targeting her, getting ready to unleash an electrified blast into the heroine.

    Cleo reached out, scooping up a shard from the ruined blades of the Freak Swiper bleeding on the cold floor and, as she came up to her knee, flung the metal piece at the Freakshow goon. The sharp, broken piece embedded itself in one of the coils grafted into the man’s shoulders.

    The Juicer grinned with happy evil. The coils jutting out of his flesh, along with the network of electrical wiring and emitters installed within his body, allowed him to channel and shoot great gouts of devastating electrical energy.  The crackling nimbus of white-hot voltage flowed between the two coils and with a flourish, he threw his arms out to deliver the deadly charged torrent.

    The orgasmic look of satisfaction on his face rippled into a silent horrible scream. The metal shard stuck in the coil over his right shoulder glowed red and a loud buzzing could be heard above the electric hum. The jagged sliver had broken the circuit, ceasing the flow from emitters to the Freaks hands. He could not fire the energy bolt and the great build-up of power had nowhere to go. The power was trapped within the man and literally fried him from the inside out. Finally, the Juicer’s screams broke through as the smell of burnt hair and flesh met Lady Cleo’s nostrils and she watched emotionlessly as the Freak fell to the floor, smoke rising from his charred form.

    The scrapper heard the phut of compressed air behind her and a moment later a small cylinder clanged to the floor, rolling between her legs. “Dammit,” she spat and was able to take three steps before the concussion grenade detonated. The shockwave lifted her from her feet and sent her tumbling helplessly through the swirling dust. Cleo struck the wall at about waist height and fell heavily to the smooth concrete.

    The heroine climbed to her hands and knees, ears ringing, a sound like rushing water filling her senses. Her vision clouded, a clear, tight tunnel before her, a haze of fog at her sides. She became aware of the vibration in the floor and felt rather than saw the metal boot of the Smasher as it fell before her. Still dazed, Cleo looked up at the Freak, one of his hammered hands held high above his head.

    She shook her head once, desperately trying to clear her mind. The hammer started its deadly decent, a look of insane glee on the face of the murderous Tank. Cleo’s left hand sprung out, claws extending in mid-strike, and she stabbed the goon through the foot. The Tank Smasher screamed, viscous machine oil spurting and staining the ground. The mallet continued on its way to Cleo’s head. Raising to her knees, her right hand arced out, the claws slicing the weapon away and with her left the heroine slashed across the Tank’s middle. A cannister the size of a liter bottle of soda fell sparking from the Freak, cut wires still buzzing. The Smasher watched wide-eyed as his power core dropped away, sliding underneath a nearby crate.

    The Tank froze and wavered for a moment. Its knees buckled and, as Lady Cleo rolled away, he fell, cracking the pavement, then toppled over face first onto the floor.

    The scrapper stood, breathing heavily, a sneer forming on her lips. “Who’s the bitch now?” she muttered under her breath. She moved to the exit and touched the communicator’s ear bud. “Doc? You still there?”

    “Here,” crackled the response. “Are you alright?”

    “Well...yeah,” she replied, frowning hard enough she imagined Silver could see her look of indignation. Am I alright...please, she thought, rolling her eyes.

    “Good,” Silver answered. “What’s your location?”

    “Freakshow nest in Brickstown.”

    “Brickstown...good. I need you to do me a favor.”

    Cleo raised an eyebrow. “What’s that? I was about to go home.”

    “Can you check out a lab in Crey’s Folly? It should be clear. Recon only. Ten minutes...tops.”

    The heroine paused for a few seconds as she stepped from the warehouse into the zones cool evening air. The searchlights surrounding the Zig swept calmly in the distance and the large prison actually looked...peaceful. Lady Cleo nodded with a sigh. “All right...where to? I’ll report in when I’ve finished checking it out.” The coordinates followed quickly. “Got it. Cleo out.”

    She took to the air, sailing over the worn buildings of Brickstown. This is going to be the fasted ten minute recon in history, she mused, the enticing vision of her hot bath dancing in her mind’s eye.

*****

    Countess Crey sat calmly at her large mahogany desk, the shuffling papers the only sound in the large dark office. The desk lamp glowed softly, highlighting only the grim frown set on her full dark lips. She faced away from the huge floor to ceiling windows that made up the wall behind her, ignoring the twinkling stars and lights of Paragon City’s Steel Canyon.

    All contact had been lost with Dr. Albriecht’s lab in the Folly. Her other holdings there seemed to be operating smoothly but reports of a most disturbing nature had begun to trickle in and, as always, she was advised of most occurrences within the City. “Impossible,” she whispered to the dark. The Countess stared at the report in her hand, reading the few lines of text. One of her low level researchers had been stopped at the Crey’s Folly gate, babbling almost incoherently about...him. The woman shook her head as she placed the paper on her desk. “Impossible,” she whispered again.

    Countess Crey raised an eyebrow. Her hand was casting a shadow over the page and as she looked up could see that her office had brightened considerably. Her frown deepened, noticing now that the light came from behind, through the window of her 85th floor office. She turned slowly and gasped.

    Tropic hovered outside the tall window, eyes glowing behind the raging fire which escaped them. His arms were crossed over his barrel chest, his body a hard, straight line from head to toe. The fiery hero stared unwaveringly at the woman inside, his only movement the tendrils of flame from his eyes as the cool wind blew past.

    The Countess stood slowly, adjusting her glasses, staring intently at the fiery hero. “Its true,” she said in awe. Her lips pursed as she thought and she straightened, trying to project an image of strength and superiority at the hovering man outside her window. The woman cleared her throat and smirked at Tropic. “So,” Countess Crey began, smoothing her dark hair from her forehead, “the rumors have some merit, I see.”

    The hero said nothing.

    “I don’t know what you think you know, but there is nothing to connect me to Albriecht and his...indiscretions.” She smiled crookedly and sniffed haughtily. “A rogue scientist and his underlings preforming experiments without my knowledge at one of the many Crey facilities throughout this city. How could I possibly know?” The Countess smiled sweetly. “And you have no proof whatsoever of my...involvement...so why don’t you just go on about your business before you waste any more of my time.” She noticed his eyes flare a bit brighter and shook her head. “If you’re entertaining any ideas about apprehending me, those windows are a foot thick clear metal polymer recently developed by Crey Industries. They tell me they’re able to withstand a nuclear blast so don’t even...think...about...”

    Her voice grew small as it trailed off. The hero was coming closer, eyes still blazing, nearer to the impenetrable windows. Arms still crossed over his chest, the man of fire pressed against the clear surface. Countess Crey’s jaw dropped as the glass began to bow inward with his progress. There was no fire about him but waves of heat radiated from his form and where he met the clerestory it blacked as he passed through, leaving behind a gaping, melted, wind-filled hole.

    Tropic hovered for a moment more, his face grim, then gravitated down, feet gracefully touching the deep, soft carpet below. His uncrossed his arms and they fell to his sides, hands closing into loose fists and the man of fire spoke calmly. “I was on my way to kill thee...but I have reconsidered,” he said, gravelly voice scraping into the office.

    He noted her amazed expression and smirked. “It seems Crey is virtually embedded in all facets of this city. Thy products and programs are in the businesses and homes of citizens throughout this metropolis. You employ many. Many own pieces of your ventures.” Tropic shook his head. “The death of Countess Crey would sent the fortunes of the city tumbling...innocents would be harmed, the loss of labor and wages would be...great.”

    He stared at the unmoving woman, his face void of emotion. “Therefore...to protect those innocent...I gift thee with thy life.” The hero’s lips twisted. “Take pains to ensure I do not regret it.”

    The Countess stood unmoving, the hero’s words filling her ears. Her face reddened with anger, her eyes flashing. “Kill me?” she asked, her voice a shrill knife. “Gift me my life? REGRET?” She drew herself to her full height, fists tight, legs spread. “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?!? I AM COUNTESS CREY! I OWN THIS CITY! STATESMAN HIMSELF FEARS TO STEP ON MY SHADOW!” She screamed her fury at her unwelcome companion, almost shaking in her rage. “WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE TO THREATEN ME?!? ME! DO YOU KNOW THE POWER I CAN BRING AGAINST YOU?!? YOU ARE NOTHING! AN INSECT TO BE SQUAS...”

    “Enough!” Tropic’s face twisted with unnatural, uncontrolled rage. His hands ignited, the red-yellow flame licking up his forearms to his elbows. “Foolish Woman!” He crossed the office in a flash and the Countess was able to let out a tiny yelp of fear as the fiery hands reached for her. Before they closed in on the sides of her face, the fire was leeched from his rough hands and she felt their otherworldly coldness as they pulled her close.

    “Stupid Woman!” The incensed hero grasped her face, pushing her back and down until she was kneeling before him. He leaned over her, pressing and pulling her toward him. “Think ye in thine arrogance there be no consequence?!? Know ye not the force thou hast roused?!?” Tropic dragged the Countess closer until they were almost nose to nose. “Behold now what your machinations have wrought.

    The fire flowing from the hero’s eyes sucked back into their sockets with an audible “shrupp.” Countess Crey stared into an inky, bottomless black marked only by two pupils of smouldering plenipotentiary power. They burned like the embers of spent wood in a fireplace, incandescent colors of red, yellow, white, gold and grey churning with a terminal vehemence. Tropic spoke again, a mere whisper, but the pictures on her walls shook and the items on her desk rattled as the hard voice filled her ears. “I...am...a...God.

    The Lord of the Fatal Primeval threw her back roughly and his eyes erupted once more. The Countess propped herself up on her elbows, watching fearfully as Tropic stepped calmly away. He neared the ruined window and turned, facing her fully. He began to hover once more when, suddenly, he burst into flame.

    He looked down upon her and pointed with his right arm, thumb to the side and index finger extended, thick tongues of flame licking up the length of his arm. “Come after me and mine again and Crey shall cease to exist. There wilt be no place on this world or in the next where thou canst hide from me. Heed this warning well...it is thy last.

    Tropic looked down his nose at the prone woman and slowly floated backward out of the office. Without another word he turned and rocketed off into the night sky, a quickly dissipating trail of fire marking his path.

    Countess Crey lay unmoving on the soft carpet, staring sightlessly out the melted glass as the glowing hero receded in the distance. She climbed slowly to her feet, breathing deeply, calming herself. She cleared her throat, smoothed her tight, dark purple dress over her taut figure and sat at her desk. She pressed the intercom button on her phone and placed her hands flat on the mahogany desk’s surface.

    “Yes, Countess?” a voice with a thick Brooklyn accent answered.

    “Bertram,” the Countess said quietly. “Please listen very carefully.”

    “Yes, Countess.”

    “Dr. Albriecht’s project is now discontinued. Any research or reports received from Dr. Albriecht will be destroyed. Is that clear?”

    “Yes, Countess.”

    “Furthermore, any research and reports done in-house by Henderson will be destroyed.”

    “Yes, Countess.”

    “There will be no further inquires into this child...ever. This order is marked zero-zero-destruct-alpha. Any future inquires into this project will result in the...censure...of the individual.”

    The intercom was silent. Finally Bertram answered. “Yes, Countess, I understand. I’ll take care of it.”

    “Thank you, Bertram.”

    “Countess?” the man asked before she could break the connection. “Are you...alright?”

    Countess Crey smiled wanly. “Yes, Bertram, I’m fine. Thank you,” and she clicked the unit off. She returned her hands to the desk and sat quietly. Her hands began to shake.

    And then Countess Crey began to cry.

*****
    The three remaining heroes in the Top Ten base started in surprise as the communicator buzz shattered the grim thoughtful silence. None had moved since Dr. Silver’s call to Lady Cleo; SuperBrain still stood, staring at the ominous power reports that flickered on the large monitor; Silver and TuxedoGin still sat at the desk, lost in their own worries.

    Silver quickly pressed the communicator, toggling the speaker so they could all hear. “Silver here...go,” he said gruffly with a sidelong glance at Tux.

    “Doc...its Cleo. I’m at that lab,” came the familiar voice of the scrapper. “You were right...its clear.” There was a long pause and the three men looked at each other. “But its...”

    “Status, Cleo,” Silver leaned closer to the speaker, “just tell us what you see.”

    “All right,” the woman began, pausing once more to collect her thoughts. “All right...the lab is empty. There’s melted equipment everywhere, some burned to slag other stuff is just...just liquified.” Her high heels clacked hollowly over the metal flooring as she continued to explore the Crey facility. “There are black smudges and ash on the floor and the whole place smells like...I don’t know...ozone, I guess.” Lady Cleo approached the entrance of the lab, preparing to exit. “And, Doc?”

    “Go ahead,” came the reply.

    “This is on every level. There’s not a thing in this place that’s not damaged.” She was silent for several seconds. “What went through here?”

    Silver looked at his two companions and chewed his lower lip. “I don’t know. Why don’t you...”

    “Ever since I entered the zone,” the heroine interrupted, “I’ve been hearing crazy rumors about...well...crazy...impossible...I mean...”

    “Don’t worry about it, Cleo,” the scientist sighed. “Go home, get some rest and come to the base tomorrow. Ok?”

    “All right,” Lady Cleo said warily into the communicator, realizing already there was something Silver wasn’t telling her. “One other thing...the place reeks of magic. Don’t ask me...I can just feel it. Just so you know, right? I’ll see you tomorrow. Cleo out.”

    The desk speaker clicked and Tux raised an eyebrow. “‘Black smudges and ash’? ‘Magic’?” He rubbed his thin beard. “What does that mean?”

    Dr. Silver looked again at the power reports seeming to glower at him from the overhead screen.  Frowning at his teammates, he pressed a button and the monitor went black. “I think we know what happened to the lab’s personnel,” he whispered.

    Brain and Tux exchanged an odd glance. “He...he burned them away?” Brain asked uneasily. “I don’t believe it...I won’t believe it...He couldn’t just...”

    TuxedoGin held up his hand, quieting SuperBrain with the gesture. “What are we dealing with, Doc?” he asked, eyes riveted to the desk, fearing to even look at the man.

    Dr. Silver ran his hand through his thick hair and fished in his labcoat for his pack of cigarettes. “I don’t know,” he answered, noticing the pack was empty. “But there’s a better question...how are we going to stop it?” He fixed his friends with worried eyes and gripped the crumpled cigarette pack tighter.

*****

    Far away and close, in the present, past and future, in a marble castle high on the cloud shrouded top of a mountain, a woman stood before a pool of black water so calm its surface could be mistaken for glass. The woman was tall, near seven feet and a gold circlet rested on her brow. Her breastplate was of intricately etched gold and was inlaid with blood red rubies. Her well muscled abdomen was bare and the skirt she wore was made of hard leather leaves, the type the ancient warriors used. From the tips of her sandaled feet to the top of her dark hair a nimbus of crackling white energy surrounded her.

    Artemis dipped her fingers into the calm dark water, disturbing its placid slumber and watched as the ripples churned out and away. She gazed onto its surface and as it calmed, she smiled, staring contentedly at what the scrying pool revealed.

    The apartment in Founder’s Falls shimmered into view, revealing the small bedroom and its occupant. The small, blonde woman slept peacefully, now wearing a clean grey t-shirt, a picture of chicks on its front with the words“Respect My Peeps”and the covers pulled up to her waist. Her sword lay by her side and a small white dog slept at her feet, a little doggy smile on its face.

    Artemis nodded, beatific as she watched Sister Hecate sleep. “Well done, my most dangerous girl,” she whispered. “Thou hast lost much this day but there will be a reckoning and thou whilst gain all that be gone and more.”

    Her hand touched the dak pool again and the scene rippled, revealing this time a little girl asleep in her crib. She clutched her black and white stuffed monkey close to her chest, almost under her chin. Her red skin practically glowed in the darkness and her jet black hair covered her innocent features.

    The Goddess’s expression softened and she reached her hand into the pool’s black water. In the crib, an invisible hand gently brushed the hair from the child’s face. “Sleep well, child of the Unending Inferno. Thy purpose is unknown to thee and thine but it be greater than any yet know.”

    With a sigh, the Huntress set the pool to tumult again and the scene revealed itself once more. A large room in Talos Island, on an upper floor, the huge statue of Talos visible through the wall length picture window. Tropic stood there looking over the city, clad only in black gym shorts, a tumbler of amber liquid and ice cubes in his right hand.

    Artemis smiled, watching over his shoulder as he sipped the aged Scotch, imaging how he would savor the hot alcohol. Suddenly, she saw the fiery hero’s head move, as if he noticed something. She frowned and then her expression became one of shock and horror.

    Tropic looked over his shoulder and smiled at her!

    The Goddess waved her hand rapidly over the scrying pool, blotting out the image and fell back several steps. “No,” she murmured. “By all the Gods, named and unnamed.” Artemis covered her mouth with her hand, her eyes saying volumes to the empty chamber on Mt. Olympus.

    She turned slowly, shaking legs moving her from the room and she said softly, fearfully, “It hasn’t ended...

    “...its barely begun.”


THE END?

WHAT HAPPENS TO OUR HEROES?
IS THIS THE END OF OUR STORY?
FIND THE ANSWERS IN 
FROM THE ASHES BY D HEIKES!



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