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From the Ashes

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Chapter 15


 

            Sharuk Haashkar walked point for the weary group of heroes, passing beyond the groups of Samurai and Myrmidon warriors.   Once more the air swirled around the group, leaving them within stone and brick tunnels, torches held in wall sconces lighting their passage.  Arcane symbols glowed within the walls at odd intervals.

            “Orenbega,” Thuama Guard said.  “The Circle of Thorns temple beneath Paragon.”

            “At least we should know what to expect here,” Guido said.

            “I wouldn’t be too sure,” Shakti said.  “Nothing has been simple throughout this.”

            “Hmph,” came from the NyteHawk.  All weary from their battles, the NyteHawk carried his wounds the heaviest.  Though Skida had been able to staunch the flow of blood, the blaster did not have the regenerative abilities of some heroes, and having been run through by Achilles’ spear had left the hero moving cautiously, a hand constantly at his injured abdomen.

            The others showed their fatigue as well.  Shadow Pain slowly worked her recently broken arm, trying to ease the tension.  The others carried wounds, rents to costumes, and wear and tear with heads held high, though their progress was slower and more cautious than when they had first begun.

            Moving through the flickering torchlight, shadows danced around the group, drawing their peripheral vision involuntarily.  Entering a large chamber with a fountain at its center, they came upon a group of warriors bearing broadswords and shields, leather tunics and boots, some wearing kilts.  All had various blue paint marks on their faces.  They were gathered around a mage in a brown cloak conversing with a demon.  Human in form, the demon’s skin was scaled, its neck covered with a thick mane of fur below a beastial snout, its maw filled with jagged, dagger-like teeth.

            Slipping back from the chamber, Skida Marink said, “Ok, the mage and demon I get, but why the Celts?”

            “Perhaps me?” Sharuk answered.   “I was first summoned to the Earth around your twelfth century, by one who was legendary amongst the Pagans.”

            “Who?” Thauma asked.

            “He was called Merlin.”

            “Oh, shit,” Thauma said.

            “What?” Celsius Bane asked.

            “That would make sense,” Thauma replied.  “It fits for both Sharuk and me.  I studied magic for years, nearly taking a darker path.  Some say Merlin was only a legend, but there are works attributed to him.  Dark texts.  I learned from some of them.”

            “The demons also account for Father Stug,” Sharuk said.  “His life in the priesthood stood against those who would open the paths freely for them.”

            “So Merlin explains the magic and Celts,” Skida said.  “But since when was he associated with the Circle of Thorns?  Baron Zoria formed that group long ago.”

            “There has to be more to it,” Shakti said.  “Hades has yet to be straight forward with any of our challenges.  But the pattern is simple, fight to the bottom of the temple and we’ll find out what’s there.”  

            Gathering themselves, the heroes once again put aside their fatigue, working as a unit they fell amongst the gathered enemies.  Thauma Guard wove dark spells around herself, working to negate the mage.  Sharuk and Celsius Bane attacked the demon Behemoth, their stronger constitution and resistance to the fires that spewed from the thing’s maw suiting them to the task.  The rest attacked the crazed, face painted warriors.  History told the blue paint with which they adorned themselves was loaded with a drug that would absorb through the skin, enraging them, making them impervious to fear.

            Though given maniacal tendencies the Celts proved little impedence to the heroes.  Bullets flew in a hail from Father Stug’s assault rifle, flames and energy flew from the NyteHawk and Shakti, Shadow Pain’s glowing katana weaving blinding patterns around the heavier and clumsier broadswords. 

            It took little time for the heroes to be proceeding deeper into the underground temple, each group they met being defeated in the same manner.   Though growing fatigue slowed the heroes more and more, the battles continued until the reached a final massive chamber, a glowing altar at its back.  

            Standing before the altar was a wizard in jet black robes, a staff radiating power in his hands.  Next to the man stood a massive being in spiked armor, a two-headed battle axe larger than even Sharuk’s awaited.

            “Infernal,” Celsius Bane whispered. 

            “Isn’t he one of the Surviving Eight?”

            “Not this one,” Bane replied.  “If you look closely you can see he looks different.  Look at the armor and symbols, it’s his alter-ego.  One of the Praetorians, discovered through Portal Corporation.  See the glowing air behind him?  It’s a portal that is open to the Behmoths that we have been fighting.  He’ll block us from it, not to mention the wizard, but that has to be our first priority.  If we don’t shut it down, this room will be flooded with those things.”

            Father Guido Stug reached into his pack, pulling out several trip mines. 

            “Leave the demons to a priest,” he said.

            The temple room before them held two ranks of Celtic warriors, behind which were a dozen Circle of Thorn mages, and another six of the Behemoth demons.

            “Can you slip around behind them to the portal unnoticed?” Shakti asked Father Stug.

            “Yes, but if I set up the bombs, they’ll hear it.”

            “Ok, let’s try this,” Celsius Bane said.  “The temple ceiling is high enough, we can all get overtop of the mob gathered to meet us.  We rush through, and as a group hit Infernal and Merlin.  We hold them back while Guido sets up to blow the portal.”      

            “How long will we have before the portal becomes active?” Guido asked.

            “Not long.”

            Thauma Guard cast her shields around her team, Skida sending waves of empathic energy over them, a rush of adrenaline flooding their systems.  When they were ready, Shakti flew up to the ceiling and over the mob, the rest leaping behind her in an arc.

            A cry went up from the Celts below as the heroes invaded the temple room, forming up a line between the villains and the glowing blue portal.  Guido set about lining the floor around the portal with explosives, whispering prayers, hands a blur loading and arming detonators.

            Celsius Bane and Sharuk Haashkar rushed the massive fire Tanker, armored helmet wreathed in flames.  Two great axes clashed, fire surrounding the trio in an inferno.  A blade of ice formed in Celsius Bane’s hand shattered across the armored chest plate of Infernal, Sharuk following the attack with his own.

            The mobs in front of their leaders pressed forward, being pressed back by the NyteHawk and Shakti pouring a constant barrage of fire and energy into their ranks.

            Skida frantically moved between the heroes, her body surrounded by a green aura as she poured herself into keeping her teammates in the battle.

            Thauma Guard faced what was perhaps the world’s most legendary magic user, her hands weaving bands of power, lashing out at the wizard.  Merlin’s staff intercepted the black mist, turning it aside, a red glow forming around its length.

            The portal over Guido’s head began to pulse, marking its stirring life.  The small priest’s mechanical arms moved with lightning precision, loading explosive after explosive in a tight ring.  Wrapping up the last piece he could, he scrambled back from the glowing area as a horde of the demons appeared in its center.

            Hoping his work had been enough Father Stug shouted to his companions, “Hang on to something!”

            Moving as far as he could from the blast area, he pulled the radio detonator from his belt.

            “Begone from my presence, spawn of Hell,” he whispered, his thumb pressing the button.

            The explosion devastated the portal and those that had just come through it, burning bits of demon flesh that disappeared to glowing embers and ash flew out in a choking cloud.

            The blast knocked the combatants away from the portal, but the distance cushioned the impact on the villains.  The portal gone, Father Stug added his weight to the blasters holding back the mob in front of the raised altar.

            “Let them gather together!” Shakti yelled.  “I can take most of them out, but I’ll be out of it for a bit.”

            “We got your back,” Guido replied

            While Thauma battled Merlin, the tankers held back Infernal, Shakti flew up above the mob of mages, demons, and Celts.  Gathering herself, concentrating all she could within her, building it to a peak, she dropped into the mob, the fires raging inside the daughter of Artemis exploding out in a massive wave of fire around her.

            The blast shattered the mob, most dropping where they stood.  Several of the demons exploded in a cloud of ash.  Staggering back, Infernal continued to press the heroes, as did Merlin.

            The NyteHawk moved up next to his sister, words of magic pouring from his lips.  Merlin’s hand held his glowing staff above his head, a storm gathered above the pair of heroes, boiling blackness within the flickering torchlight.  Lightning lashed out in bolt after bolt, impacting and dissipating on the glowing force field Thauma held above their heads.

            The spell pouring from the NyteHawk’s lips flooded power through him, giving him a short burst of strength, further hardening the tough hide his skin had become.  His hands glowing with power, he rushed the legendary wizard.  Merlin’s staff spun around, swinging a tight arc at the approaching hero.

            The NyteHawk blocked the blow, a brilliant flash of red energy burst forth as his hands touched the staff.  Merlin rebounded, spinning the staff under and slamming it butt first into the NyteHawk’s belly.

            Doubled over in agony, the NyteHawk let loose a growl of rage, slamming a massive uppercut to the wizard’s body.  Merlin was sent flying backwards, but recovered before hitting the wall, catching himself in midair, levitating a foot above the floor.

            Merlin’s eyes flashed, and a host of horrors, black misty vision poured forth.  Every nightmare his enemies could dream of flooded their minds.

            Sweat poured down Thauma Guard’s forehead as she fought the fear that filled her.  Steeling herself, telling herself she could weather the storm, she called out to the others for backup.

            “Concentrate on the wizard!” Celsius Bane shouted at the rest of the group.  “Sharuk, Skida, and I will hold Infernal back.”

            Shakti shook off the fatigue that flooded her system, throwing a fireball at the embattled Merlin.  From a kneeling position, his teeth gritting against the pain in his stomach, the NyteHawk threw blast after blast into the fray.  Father Stug’s assault rifle sang out in a deafening staccato, a hail of hot lead peppering the wizard’s defenses.  Shadow Pain rushed in, wrapping Merlin up in a melee battle, the blazing staff whirling in a blur, deflecting the glowing arcs of Pain’s katana.

            When an opening presented itself Merlin stepped back and slammed his staff into the ground, an explosion of power radiating out, sending the heroes flying.  Rolling to their feet on the stone floor, banged and bruised, the heroes immediately threw themselves back at the ancient sorcerer, refusing to give up.

            Sheer force of will kept the heroes in the fight, the weight of their attacks slowly taking tolls on Merlin’s defenses.  Thauma didn’t know what was keeping her team on their feet, but they refused to back down.  Shadow Pain moved around the wizard, having taken damage from the staff, trying now to just avoid being hit.  Shakti and the NyteHawk struggled to keep their strength up, their attacks coming much slower.  Guido’s assault rifle glowed red from the constant barrage.

            Finally the combined weight of the heroes beat a hole in the defenses the wizard kept around himself, the attacks penetrating and slamming Merlin into the temple wall.  In a last burst of will the heroes poured their attacks in.  Merlin raised the glowing staff and disappeared in a blinding flash.

            Exhausted, the heroes nearly dropped, only to realize they had yet another fight on their hands.  Skida fell back into their midst, her energy spreading out, easing pain, bringing back their energy slowly.

            Sharuk bled freely from an axe wound at his massive shoulder, though he showed no sign of the injury.  Celsius Bane too was cut and damaged.  Infernal was nearly impervious to fire so the tankers had been battling the Praetorian in a brutal physical battle.  Celsius swinging the massive blade of ice to add to Sharuk’s axe.

            Again in a war of attrition, the heroes poured their attacks into the fray, fireballs and energy, bullets and grenades all assaulting Infernal.  Thauma Guard’s dark power helped leech some of the strength from the massive Praetorian.  Celsius Bane was knocked back by a backhanded axe blow.  Taking advantage of the diversion created by his teammates, he placed his palms upon the floor, a massive sheet of ice spreading out.  Sharuk held Infernal’s attention as the ice spread until it became a treacherous slick, sending both hero and Praetorian sprawling.

            Seeing the villain tumble, the heroes gave the last of their energies to pound Infernal, until he tried to rise no more from the ice.

            Dropping to the ground, the wounded, exhausted heroes collapsed, panting, sweating, bleeding.  Thauma Guard dug the palms of her heels into her eyes, shaking, wondering how much more they could take.  When she opened her eyes again, the sky above was blue, white clouds drifting gently by.  The heroes looked around, trying to gather their bearings.

            “Rise children,” Hades wickery voice said.

            Slowly the weary group climbed to its feet.  Beaten and battered, they found Hades and Artemis before them, a glowing smile on the face of the Huntress.   

            “You have fought well,” Hades said.  “I could continue to throw my hordes at you, but it is plain you would continue to fight until there is nothing left of you.  I have an eternities worth of warriors, and surely you could not defeat them all.  But your hearts will never break, your spirit will always be as one.  I concede the wager, after you pass one final test…”

            Energy swirled at Hades right, forming into several people. 

            The heroes stood facing their fallen leader, Aaron looking on the group with a beaming expression of pride and joy.  A beautiful young woman stood at his side, the resemblance of siblings obvious.  His parents stood close behind.

            “You must convince him to leave,” Hades said.  “For I will not force any to leave my realm who has come at their determined time.”

            Thauma Guard rushed forward, almost bowling Aaron over, tears pouring down her face.  He wrapped his arms around her, whispering in her ear, stroking her hair.  When Thauma had regained her composure, Aaron moved to the rest.  Smiling, a sense of almost embarrassment filled the fallen hero.  Hugging some, shaking other hands, Aaron told each how much he had missed them.  When he had spoken to each, he introduced them to his family.

            When Aaron introduced his sister Jessica to Thauma and Shadow Pain, Jess hugged them both, saying “Thank you for taking care of my brother.”

            “He always needed it,” Shadow Pain replied.

            Aaron’s family welcomed the heroes, telling them how proud they were of the man their son had become, and those he had surrounded himself with.

            “Aaron, we need you to come back with us,” Thauma eventually said.

            Aaron looked at his family, then back to Thauma.  “I can’t,” he said.  “I spent most of my life wishing I was here.  How could I go back to that?”

            “I know it would be hard,” Shadow Pain said.  “But you may be the only one who can solve the problem.”

            “And I need you,” Thauma said.

            Aaron ran his hand over hers.  “I’ll be here waiting for you.”

            Thauma shook her head.  “It’s not enough.  You told me you were always with me, but I miss you every minute of every day.  And it’s not just me.  The group needs you.  And there’s something more, that Artemis says only you can do.”

            “What is that?”

            “Reason with Tropic.”

            “What’s going on with Tropic, and why would he listen to me?” Aaron asked, looking to Artemis for answers. 

Hades held up his hand, saying to Artemis, “It is for them to convince him.  You must not interfere.”

“He’s out of control,” Celsius Bane said.  “He is much stronger since his return to life, and he’s killed many.”

“So, again, why would he listen to me?” Aaron asked.

“Because you could stand up to him,” Shakti said.  “None of us can.  Even his teammates are afraid to stand up to him, because nobody knows if he’ll lash out and kill them.”

“He’d kill his own team?”

“He might,” Shadow Pain said.

“If he’s so dangerous, how could I stand up to him alone?”

“It has something to do with how you died,” Shakti said. 

Aaron sighed, thinking.

The conversation was interrupted by the NyteHawk dropping to his knees, retching a huge amount of blood, then collapsing to his side.   Skida was by his side instantly, her healing energy pouring into him.

Thauma knelt by her brother, holding his head, saying “Hang on, Rosh.  We’ll get you home, soon.” 

“He’s going to need a hospital,” Skida said.  “I don’t know how much he’s bled internally, but I can’t stop it.”   

A dark fire erupted in Hades eyes, a long “Yesss,” escaping his lips.  “It seems one of you will join my horde, after all.”

“Like hell!” Thauma Guard shouted, rounding on the Lord of the Underworld.  “You said if we fell within the mountain we would have to stay.  We survived your challenges.  He returns with me!”

“If he falls here, he is mine!” Hades hissed.

Thauma squared off with him.  “God or no, if you try to take my brother now, I will tear you limb from limb.”

“Careful of your tone,” Hades warned, a dangerous air growing about the skeletal god.

“Hades!” A voice thundered out.

Heads turned to find Artemis facing Hades, her bow in hand, drawn, a glowing arrow knocked, aiming for Hades head.  “Thou shalt honor thy agreement, or there be war between us!”

Aaron stepped into the center of the group.  “Enough!  Send us back.  He hasn’t fallen.”

Hades looked at Artemis with anger in his face.  “Take them, then, and be gone from my realm!”

With a rush of displaced air, the Lord of the Underworld disappeared.

Artemis shouldered her bow.  Looking to the NyteHawk she said, “You will survive to return to your life.  Your bodies are whole, twas only thy souls that fought here.  When you arrive, your wounds will be gone.  Fear not.”  The Huntress turned to Aaron.  “Walk with me.”

The pair left the group and talked for a time, then returned.

“I have to go back,” Aaron told his family.

“Of course you do,” his mother said.  “You are needed.”

“We’re here for you, son,” his father said.

Aaron hugged each of his family fiercely.

“We’ll take care of him for you,” Shadow Pain said with a smile.

“I know you will,” Aaron’s mother said.  “You always have.”

“Gather to me,” Artemis said.  “You have great strength and honor.  Thou shalt stand to the test of thy lives when it doth come.  I am proud of each of thee.”

“Good bye mother,” Shakti said as the glow from Artemis fanned out, surrounding the group in a blinding white light.

TO CHAPTER 16 >

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