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From the Ashes
The polluted water that filled large parts of Crey’s Folly reflected the morning sun, encompassing the area in an odd green-tinged hue. The pipes and water works from the massive factories that had been damaged during an industrial accident by Crey Corporation ruptured, spilling their toxic contents onto the roadways and land, making the area treacherous. Growing in the slimy muck Devouring Earth mutant plant beings thrived on the toxicity.
The War Walls created after the Rikti War kept citizens out, and separated Brickstown, and its struggle for normalcy, from the twisted roadways and rusty pipelines of the Folly. Massive force fields glowed as high as the eye could see, keeping even those who could fly out of the zone without passing through the guarded gates, or one of the criminals’ secret entrances.
Towards the end of the war a massive Rikti battleship had been brought down west of the area that would become known as Crey’s Folly. The ship remained in a further cordoned off area of the city that had been devastated by the blast of the massive ship impacting the city. An active force field remained around the downed craft, keeping humans from invading or shutting down the portal that remained open to the Rikti inside of the ship.
The stark contrast between the streets of Brickstown, only a few hundred yards away, and the devastated, polluted wreck that was Crey’s Folly amazed most who came through the entrance. Lord Nikon, and the grouped Top Ten members who waited just inside of the zone, past the high barbed wire fences and guard shacks, took little notice of their surroundings. They would not need to venture further into the devastated wasteland if all went according to their plans.
It wasn’t long before the black and gold clad group saw their quarry pass the armed guards and step into the sunlight. Tropic wore red and black leather, the heat shimmered in a blurring aura around him, the fire in his eyes standing out even in the broad daylight. He cocked his head as he noticed his teammates, ten to twelve standing as a group, watching him. Elendil was there, with Lord Nikon, Kira Jinx, SuperBrain, Deep Phreeze, Miyaka, Bzald, and others, all apparently waiting for him.
“Did I miss a meeting, or something?” Tropic asked.
“Actually, you did,” Lord Nikon replied. “We know why you’re here, where you’re going. We can’t let you do it.”
The casual expression dropped from the fiery hero’s visage, his chin came up in a look of supreme confidence and calm.
“What do you mean, you can’t let me?”
“Just that,” SuperBrain replied. “Tropic, you’re out of control, and we can’t keep covering it up anymore. You are not above the rules and law.”
Tropic’s expression never changed, yet something lurking deep beneath the surface seemed to come into the light. The ground shook as he spoke, a bass resonating throughout the steel and concrete around them. All of the assembled heroes knew the change belied a terrible threat.
“Thou wouldst dare?”
The Top Ten members fanned out in front of their fiery teammate, each looking into the faces of those around them. Nervous hesitation was an unknown to the group, but Tropic was one of their own, and yet an unknown variable. The only thing the heroes could be sure of was some of them not surviving should Tropic decide to lash out at them.
“We have to question you,” Kira Jinx said, finally speaking for the group. “There is too much on the line for us to simply turn our backs to your actions anymore. You’ve put us all in jeopardy, threatened the reputation of the Top Ten as a whole.”
“Thou should not question the actions of a god. I am above your reprieve.”
“Even if that is true, we aren’t above the scrutiny of others,” Elendil said. “Since you’ve been back we’ve done things we should not have done as part of that cover up. That itself would be bad enough, but others know about it.”
“Azuria, and Numina, for starters. They have had people looking into us.”
“Fools. I will suffer them no longer. They worry about their image whilst true villains hunt, threatening the people. Threatening mine family!”
A wave of heat surged out from Tropic, his teammates taking a step back from the invisible surging wall of heat.
“Thy system is corrupt, its leaders fallen from my grace. Justice hath returned to Paragon with me. The people must be protected.”
“But who will protect them from you?” Came a question from behind.
Turning Tropic looked as another twenty or so heroes emerged from the guarded opening in the shield wall. WillowWind was with them, with Annie carried on her hip. The man who’d spoken wore black armor with green highlights. Lightning bolts down the sleeves and on the cape that drifted in the wind behind him. His eyes glowed emerald green in the morning light.
“So, I was right,” Tropic said. “I foretold we wouldst be called back together.”
“I don’t think this is what you foresaw,” PhoenixHawk said. “We have something to do, you and I, something ordained for us long before either of us was born. I don’t know what it is, but I do know your actions threaten that plan.”
“And thou wouldst question mine actions as well?”
“It’s why I was called back. My friends, my family, were told to see if you were becoming a danger to Paragon. I think you have.”
A dangerous smile spread across Tropic’s face. The fire in his eyes flashed from orange to white.
“And thou wouldst save the people from me?” A deep chuckle from the fiery hero shook the ground.
The small arcs of power, blue and white swirls of energy, began to move faster around PhoenixHawk’s body.
“I guess we’ll find out,” he said, stepping forward, slamming a hard uppercut to Tropic’s jaw, a bright blue flash of power crackled through the air at the point of impact.
Tropic was lifted well off of his feet, somersaulting backwards in the air. Righting himself, he hovered ten feet above the ground.
“So be it,” he said.
Tropic’s hands shot forward, twin beams of flame lancing out towards PhoenixHawk, who leapt into the air, narrowly avoiding the blast. The ground where the beams hit smoldered, the black tarmac melting under the intense heat. The gathered heroes quickly spread out away from their two embattled companions.
On the ground the Top Ten members looked to one another, and finally WillowWind for guidance. Willow turned to Thauma Guard who stood nearby, and asked, “Should we help him?”
“Which one,” Thauma asked.
WillowWind shot her a glare. “PhoenixHawk. I know a lot hinges on this. We may already have lost Tropic.”
“I won’t lose PhoenixHawk again,” Thauma said. “But for now, I’d say we wait.”
Above, Tropic and PhoenixHawk squared off above the twisting metal of shut down factories. The fetid air crackled and surged with power and flame as the two blasters lashed out at one another.
The arcs of energy around PhoenixHawk flashed faster and faster, finally bursting into a cerulean sunburst that haloed the hero. Tropic noted the change, a shimmering wall of heat surrounding him.
Beams of fire shot from Tropic’s eyes, boring towards the center of PhoenixHawk’s chest. His hands glowing a bright blue, PhoenixHawk caught the beams on outstretched palms, the heat of the flames washing over him. Reaching within himself, he brought the fires that lurked at his core to the surface, diffusing the burning attack.
Tropic released the beams, and was immediately hit with a wall of dazzling power that shoved him backwards, sending him reeling through the air. PhoenixHawk followed with a tightly gathered blast, jarring Tropic from the sky.
Catching himself just before he crashed into the Earth, Tropic rocketed skyward towards his adversary. A blade of flame burst from his hands, slashing out explosively across PhoenixHawk’s chest armor. Residual flames exploded around the green and black clad hero as he was knocked spinning through the air. Tropic followed, catching his quarry, and flew full force into the shield wall behind them. The concrete buckled, leaving a large impact crater.
Chunks of rock and steel dropped away as PhoenixHawk pulled himself from the wall. Tropic swung a burning fist into PhoenixHawk’s still dazzled head, sending the hovering hero back into the massive wall.
Shaking his head to clear the stars dancing before his eyes, PhoenixHawk shoved away from the wall and flipped over Tropic. Spinning around he sent a staccato series of blasts from his fists, which Tropic caught on his crossed forearms. Gathering his strength, building it up from within, he shoved Tropic back with all of the power he could gather. From any other hero Tropic would have shrugged off the blast, but like himself, PhoenixHawk had been granted a depth of power greater than he had possessed before his death. The energy carried Tropic into the damaged wall with a ground-shaking thud. The crumbling rock wall crushed in, a wide circle of impact ten feet across cracking the massive structure.
Snarling in rage, Tropic threw himself at PhoenixHawk, the two blasters now grappling, entwined like birds of prey falling from the sky, fists raining blows upon one another. The pair crashed into the ground in an impact that should have splattered them into nothingness.
Still swinging burning blades, fists, lashing out in an inferno of flame and energy, the two snarled at one another.
“Thou canst not defeat me! I am a GOD!”
“No you’re NOT!” PhoenixHawk grunted through gritting teeth. “You’re just full of yourself! You need to get control of that thing inside your head!”
Tropic grasped the edges of PhoenixHawk’s armor, slamming his adversary bodily into the ground.
“Nothing doth dwell inside but ME!”
PhoenixHawk kneed Tropic in the back, sending the fire blaster rolling off of him.
“This is not the man I met before! Not the one who spoke to me after my death! That’s who I’m talking to, not YOU!” PhoenixHawk punctuated statement with a explosion of energy that staggered Tropic.
Tropic’s rage peaked. An almost animal snarl came from his lips as he flew back into PhoenixHawk, the two rolling with the impact, Tropic coming out on top, his hands raining fiery blows down, over and over.
“I am the Dread One, Lord of the Fatal Primeval! I am a GOD!”
Tropic raised his right hand, his left hand holding PhoenixHawk’s throat. The air shimmered in a raging inferno. The flames in Tropic’s hand burned a supernova white. The rage screamed from Tropic as he brought the fire up, preparing to incinerate any who would question his might.
His hand held high, Tropic stopped. Something in the air caught his attention. The flame in his hand would not respond to him. The air swirled around it, diminishing the blinding white glow to a normal orange flame. Still struggling, snarling at his own unresponsive limb, Tropic watched as the flames swirled around into a vortex, twisting and reforming into the shape of a galloping unicorn, running in place in his palm.
“What in Hades name?” Tropic asked, his voice losing the deep bass.
The unicorn reared onto its hind legs then leapt off and flew towards a tiny outstretched hand a small distance away. The red-skinned girl held out her own palm, the burning unicorn dancing upon it on its hind legs. WillowWind watched in shocked fascination as she held her daughter, baby on her hip holding the flame as one would a butterfly. Finally the unicorn leapt away, running uphill upon nothing but air, growing until it became the size of a full grown horse. Leaving a burning trail behind it, the flaming unicorn faded as it ran, the sparkling flame of its tail diminishing in the morning sun.
“Annie?” Tropic asked, not quite sure of what he had just seen.
Taking the opening PhoenixHawk kicked his hips up, flipping Tropic off of him. He kicked up off of the ground and spun, grabbing the still stunned Tropic by the shirt front.
“Yes, Annie! What do you think this whole thing has been about from the beginning?”
“What are you talking about?” Tropic asked.
PhoenixHawk shook his head in frustration.
“What are you?” he asked.
“What are you?” PhoenixHawk repeated.
“I am Tropic.”
“No. What are YOU?”
Growing frustrated as well Tropic snarled in return.
“NO! What. Are. You?”
“I am the Dread One.”
PhoenixHawk shook Tropic hard.
“I am the Lord of the Fatal Primeval.”
“NO! What did they tell you? What did they CALL YOU?”
Tropic stared into the glowing green eyes before him.
“I am….the Vessel.”
“Yes! You are the Vessel. I know about that. Artemis told me, but you still haven’t figured it out! What did they mean? What were you the Vessel for?”
“They gave me the power to defeat the Beast. They knew I would be needed, so they made me the Vessel for the power.”
“No! It’s not always about you! You’re head is so big you can’t see past it.”
PhoenixHawk turned Tropic toward his daughter, who stared back with eyes that belied knowledge far greater than an infant could possess.
“The Beast was only part of it,” PhoenixHawk continued. “Just like your death, and mine. It’s all been part of something more.” Pointing at Annie he said, “Can’t you see it? It’s right there before your eyes!”
“Annie?” Tropic asked again.
“Yes!” PhoenixHawk shouted, as though a great revelation had been reached. “Annie. You were put here, given the power you have, able to do great things, because you would be able to create something greater. Your daughter.
“Your death, my own, were all parts of something the Gods have planned for eons. I don’t know what it is, Artemis wouldn’t tell me. But without everything we went through, she said we would not be able to accomplish what we would need to do when the time came. And your daughter is the keystone of the whole thing. Whatever is coming, she is here to help us stop it.
“But none of that will matter if you don’t learn to put a cap on that thing raging inside of you. You controlled it once before, escaped the grasp of the Hun Lords, and turned yourself into something greater than the villain they controlled. The power you have now is not dependent upon the parts of the being that have grabbed hold of you. You were given that power; it’s yours. Nothing can take it away. You just need to get rid of the residual rage that still holds on inside of you like a virus. If you don’t, the whole thing you’ve lived and died for will unravel.”
Tropic seemed to hear PhoenixHawk’s words, and yet be struggling with something else. His head tilted to the side as though he were listening to something nobody else could hear. The air around him pulsed with heat, then cooled. After a time he nodded to himself.
“I hear the truth in your words. It will take some time, but I think you are right. I need to be in control.”
“And you need to abide within the rules, as the rest of us do. The system has its flaws, but if we step outside of the law, then we cause more of the corruption and cover ups that we hate.”
The assembled heroes gathered around the two scorched and battered combatants. WillowWind handed Annie to Tropic who looked into his daughter’s eyes. Annie giggled and promptly stuck her thumb in her mouth.
Tropic looked at the Top Ten gathered around him.
“You covered for me, without question. I am in your debt.”
“What’s done is done,” Lord Nikon said. “We’ve all crossed lines of late. Now it’s time to step back from the boundaries, and let the dust settle.”
Agreement was spoken all around. As the heroes moved towards the dividing gate between Crey’s Folly and Brickstown, Tropic stopped PhoenixHawk with a hand on his shoulder.
“Thank you,” Tropic said. “I see the truth of what you have said today. Still, there is nothing I would not do to protect my daughter.”
“But you may have been endangering her yourself.”
Tropic nodded. In his arms, Annie pointed at PhoenixHawk and around the thumb in her mouth said, “birdie!”
Tropic smiled. “When I call you for that beer you owe me, you can tell me what she is talking about.”