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Heart of Fire

by Josef Koelbl III

Imbued with power by the Hun Lords of the Feuer, Tropic performed their evil bidding: the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, the Great San Francisco fire, the firebombing of Dresden, the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and countless other acts of war and destruction. Finally freeing himself from their diabolical grasp, he fights the good fight for all mankind hoping to one day compensate for his past misdeeds...

    He stayed hidden during the day. Although there were many heroes here in Paragon City, they all, for the most part, looked so...normal. Of course some were huge, small, hairy, even a machine or two among them, but he was still not sure the citizens or the heroes were ready for him, a red-skinned, flaming eyed man of fire. He was not even sure if they considered him a criminal, even if he thought it of himself.

    Criminal, he thought, ...Murderer. Mass murderer.

    Tropic looked out the slats of the wooden door that blocked the entrance to the tunnel on Talos Island. Well, more of a cave than a tunnel. Its entrance was a small chamber that curved right into a larger cavern, then just stopped. A simple pallet for sleeping, a small pit for a fire, a spit for cooking. A Spartan existence providing all he needed. As night fell he would fly through the City, patrolling its streets, saving hapless victims from predators. Then he’d fly off, not waiting for thanks or credit, and return to his hole as day broke. A Spartan, lonely existence.

    He had ended up in Paragon City a month or so ago, another stop on an unending journey. He couldn’t stay too long in one place, sooner or later whomever he befriended would notice. They would grow older while he stayed the same. They would die and he would grieve. And move on. Again. An immortal man tortured by guilt and loneliness. A Spartan, desolate existence.

    A red glow streaming through the slats of the door caught his notice. He peeked out between the ill-fitted wood and saw the red disks hovering in the air. He stepped out, frowning, into the late afternoon sky. The ovals were appearing all over Talos. He looked to the right and saw them forming over Skyway City, ahead in the distance they were over Founder’s Falls. He stared unmoving as they popped into the darkening sky and watched with interest as the better known heroes in the city buzzed incessantly around them.

    He turned his attention to the docks and warehouses near the highway leading to Skyway. The Tsoo were out in force, staring skyward, their Sorcerers and Spirits pointing and agitated. Even from this distance Tropic could see the fear on their faces. He looked at the circular objects again and shook his head. This wasn’t magic, he would feel that. This was something different... technological and malevolent. The disks floated, ambivalent to the panic starting to ebb into the streets. Tropic felt the danger but there was nothing to do about it.

    He watched for more than half an hour as more of the disks appeared. They had begun to form on land as well and the feeling of dread grew heavier in the air, a palpable, almost physical presence now. In the distance, in Talos proper, the crash of breaking glass echoed out from between the tall buildings and over the river to his hidden cave. His lips turned down, knowing from dark experience the telltale sounds of panic. He looked up as a shadow rocketed over him and into the city. Another hero ready to squelch the growing violence.

    He sighed heavily, wanting to help, but...afraid to be seen. Fear, he mused, smiling crookedly. An...odd sensation. Tropic nodded once and launched himself into the air, not to the tall spires of the skyscrapers but to the low warehouses near the tunnel to Skyway City. He saw now that the disks had formed above and below him and he reasoned that, whatever they were, the heroes dealing with them would just as soon not be bothered with a distraught band of Tsoo criminals. He brought his feet under him and touched down lightly on the rusted corrugated tin roof of the warehouse.

    Tropic gazed skyward again then toward the city. Heroes now gathered at the ferry to Peregrine Island, the home of Portal Corp and the hub of interdimensional travel. As the boat landed, several heroes exited, several others climbed on and all, at least those with their faces showing, wore the same expression: a worried fear of the unknown. The fiery hero looked down, noticing the Tsoo that had been gathered had fled. He frowned. The Tsoo were many things, assassins, thieves, extortionists...but they were not cowards. His frowned deepened, etching a darker red in his skin.

    Suddenly a great moan came from the buildings across the river. His head snapped up and his eyes flashed brighter, the inexhaustible flame flowing higher over his head. A enormous ship began to poke through one of the red spheres, its gleaming silver hull bristling with weaponry. The spacecraft seemed to shimmer and one of its cannons erupted, striking a tall building and shearing off the top three floors. As one, the remaining weapons on the craft discharged, plowing into the streets and buildings, destroying everything in their paths.

    The screams reached Tropic’s ears a mere second before the crisp scent of ozone and coppery blood met his nostrils. And then the other ovals delivered their predatory cargo. Dropping from the sky and erupting from the earth armored aliens formed, stepping through their portals with weapons blazing. Thick beams of plasma cris-crossed the city, enveloping heroes and ordinary citizens alike, killing both with no regard or mercy.

    Tropic dropped from the roof, standing motionless, watching. I have done this, he thought. Things like this, his memory roughly yanked back to old deadly days. He shook his head vigorously, trying to shake the memories out, scatter them into the four winds. But they refused to budge, they were his...always.

    He heard a skittering near him and looked to his right. Something was coming toward him, its chattering filled the air and he took a step back, bracing himself. It was small and short. Its arms were long, almost longer than its body and its fingers bore razor sharp nails. Its head was long, like the long snout of a dog and its skin...a sickening pink covered with clear slime. A monkey was the only word that came close in Tropic’s mind.

    The thing leapt at him, slashing with its talons. Tropic threw his hips back, the swipe barely missing. It slashed again and the hero stepped to the side, watching as the monkey fell forward off balance. Tropic pointed at the animal and a tight blast of fire shot forth engulfing the pink thing. It dropped, screeching and, as he stood over it trying to get a better look, a green vapor emanated from its dead body.

    The fiery hero fell back several steps, coughing and hacking as the noxious fumes dissipated. He heard the now familiar chattering again and through bleary eyes looked between the warehouses. At least twenty of the alien monkey-things bounded toward him, teeth snapping and their glistening claws scraping over the asphalt. Tropic wiped at his eyes and forced a huge tongue of fire to escape from each of his blazing orbs, clearing his vision almost immediately.

    He leapt into the air just as several of the things lunged at him. Tropic hovered above them as they jumped up, trying to snatch him away like dogs at the base of a cat filled tree. The fiery hero waited until all the monstrosities were gathered tightly below him and then, raising his arms above his head, his rough hands filled flame. He launched the churning ball of fire into the surging mass below, capturing the alien beasts with in a grim, inescapable inferno.

    Tropic flew quickly to a warehouse roof, remembering the noxious fumes one had produced and not wishing to be caught in the poisonous spew of two dozen of the things. “Filthy animals,” he muttered as they literally melted away. Movement caught his eye as several yards ahead of him a squad of aliens entered a nearby warehouse.

    These weren’t monkey-things but humanoid beings wearing what appeared to be body armor and carrying all manner of weaponry. Tropic estimated there were perhaps forty of the soldiers and noted with interest the signs on each side of the door they entered. The left read “CREY INDUSTRIES TECHNOLOGY DEPOT.” The right simply said “NO ENTRY. AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.”

    The hero’s lips set themselves into a thin line. Well, he thought, that can’t be good, and he started to kick off from the roof. Suddenly, he froze in place. He wanted to move, to intercept the aliens entering the warehouse, but despite his best efforts remained standing statue still. The red-skinned blaster tried desperately to move his arms to no avail. He stood motionless, now feeling waves of nausea roll over him and his eyes grew heavy.

    Tropic heard rustling behind him and from the corner of his eye one of the alien things appeared, moving now in front of him. He felt and saw the rings of mental energy coming from the thing’s forehead. There was a flash in the soldier’s right hand and a huge curved sword materialized. Tropic could imagine the smile behind the alien’s helmet as it prepared to deliver the death blow. Move! Tropic screamed to himself.

    The sword came up and the fiery hero felt the hold on him lessen, but it was not enough. He was fixed in place, able to duck only slightly, when white energy struck the alien from behind. Tropic heard the thing’s armor breach and the anchor he felt bound to evaporated. He thrust his hands forward, fire leaping from his palms and blasted the enemy back. It tumbled away, black smoke rising from its receding body.

    Tropic looked past it, trying to find the unknown benefactor who had struck first. There, before the warehouse door the invaders had just entered, stood five of the city’s heroes. Each bore on their chests a shield insignia of blue and gold, and while all wore the same colors, their uniforms were somewhat different...individual. One man wore blue goggles, another wore a wide, low-brimmed fedora, still another appeared to be wearing solid armor. Of the two women with them, the red-head was clad in a distracting leather mini-skirt and the girl with hair so black it was almost blue wore traditional tights and shiny, short jacket.

    She smiled and waved at him, the white crackling nimbus still dancing over her hand. Tropic waved back with a short salute, suddenly throwing his arm out and firing a tight bolt over her head. She ducked and turned, seeing the mechanical drone behind them burst into flame and crash into the river. She turned back to him, face adorned with a brilliant smile and followed the rest of her teammates into the Crey warehouse.

    “WAIT!” he called out, knowing they were unaware of the invading force that had entered a few moments ago. They didn’t hear him and disappeared within the building. Again he kicked away from the roof but a huge explosion detonated behind him, driving him forward and demolishing the warehouse. Steel beams twisted and smoking rubble rained down on the red-skinned hero, burying him beneath the destroyed structure.

    Boots crunched on the smoking debris as a group of the alien invaders marched calmly to the center of the smoldering mound. They chattered excitedly at each other, no doubt congratulating themselves on the effortless death of the weak, pathetic hero. Almost thirty of them gathered at the site of their victory, several of the monkeys hopped over the fallen beams and mortar and a handful of mechanical drones hovered around the group.

    The rest of the force were soldiers clad in silver or black battle armor. Two or three were obviously in command, staring out over the river watching the wholesale destruction occurring among the tall buildings. Behind the group an invader punched at a console in his hand and a pulsing green sphere took shape, the shadows within appearing to be more soldiers ready to transport in. And all carried either huge swords or even larger plasma rifles. And all were ready to kill.

    Suddenly, below them, a red glow began to filter through the tightly packed stone and steel. The aliens looked down, their excited voices raising in volume as their boots began to smoke. Before they could move, a circle formed underneath them all and, try as they might, they could not escape it. Their boots seemed to stick to the hot surface and in their zeal to flee they all looked as though they ran in slow motion. The invaders screamed in rage and confusion, casting about in a frantic search for their unknown tormentor.

    The outskirts of the rubble exploded, showering the aliens with chunks of flaming rock and melted slag. Tropic rose, hovering before them, his body appearing to undulate due to the waves of heat radiating from his core. He held his arms out and low, fists encased with fire that licked up his forearms to his elbows. He looked at them, his head bowed in anger, his dark countenance red with rage. The things leveled their weapons and fired blast after blast of crisp plasma at the fiery hero, the beams seeming to sheer away as they impacted into the blazing red-orange holocaust that surrounded him. 

    A screech of metal and a series of explosions echoed between the skyscrapers and over the waterway. Behind the man of fire an alien craft smoked and shuddered, its nose tipping drunkenly as the city’s heroes bombarded it with all their might. It rocked crazily and crashed straight down into the river, a great wave marking its death.

    Tropic’s lips pulled back from his teeth and he smiled a joyful, barely human smile. He fixed his fiery eyes on the invaders and whispered, “Did you think it was going to be that easy?”

    And fire lit the sky.

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