Content Warning: Death, PTSD
“Fuck this.” I mutter under my breath, bouncing my pencil against my knee. “I’m done studying for today.”
I slam my book shut and grumble. History is bad enough when it’s just boring, but when it’s boring and inaccurate it’s insufferable. Everyone gets it wrong, but they all think they have it right. I guess history truly is written by the victors. I know I sound bitter, but you would be too if you had to read a textbook about how your entire family was murdered by a psychopath.
I go to my dresser and pull open the bottom drawer, pushing aside some sweats and shorts to reveal a false bottom. I push on it slightly and lift it up just enough so I can grab what’s inside. I pull out a modified gas mask, painted and thinned out slightly, a deep black cloak and a cheap cell phone. The phone is a burner that I should probably get around to replacing soon, while the mask and cloak are just so I can conceal my identity without having to transcend sooner than I absolutely must.
I shove the mask and cloak into my backpack and put my password into the phone, opening the texting app and clicking on the group chat at the very top of the app. I quickly type a message and pace around my tiny dorm room waiting anxiously for a notification. Finally, a reply comes.
Me: Need to blow off steam. Anyone up for sparring?
Chimera: I would love to, but I have homework. Sorry, Phe…
Me: No worries.
I sigh and angrily toss my phone onto my bed. I need to get out of this dorm in the worst way, and I don’t want to have to go looking for a petty criminal just to clear my head. I feel my rage swelling within me, begging me, ordering me even, to transcend. To transform from the simple, quiet Rachel into the powerful and confident Phoenix. To burn the book and the person who wrote it to the ground. I try to push these thoughts to the back of my mind, I take one breath, then another, then a third, feeling the anger subside just slightly. I glance out the window at my school’s courtyard. I swear, sometimes Archduke Valentin’s Boarding School seems more like a prison, but it’s allegedly the best school money can buy.
I look out at the courtyard, standing still and empty, a few lights from lampposts in the courtyard provide the faint light in the winter evening. There’s no snow, if there were things might actually look cheery. Everything feels cold and still, everything feels dead. The city has no life or substance, the city feels abandoned on nights like this. People certainly aren’t my favorite thing, but a dead, empty city isn’t better.
I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the window, shrugging. I’m about as plain and unassuming as possible, nobody would ever guess that I’m a superhero when I’m not at school, and if they did, I’m pretty sure Phoenix would be the last person they assumed I was. I look at my face, I have relatively average features, a small slightly upturned nose with chapped lips and dull brown eyes beneath small glasses. My cheeks are fairly pale and my whole face tends to lack color, I’m light skinned so that isn’t a huge surprise, but I lack the rosy cheeks or colorful eyes that some people have. I look at my hair, long, straight, and dirty blonde, it sits at the middle of my back. I don’t usually like to put my hair up and today is no exception. I’ve been lucky enough to have fairly low-maintenance hair, which is one of the few blessings I try to be thankful for. I look down at my clothes, a plain black tee shirt, and blue jeans. I’m just thankful that it’s still the weekend and I don’t have to put on that awful uniform until tomorrow.
I’m pulled out of my self-analysis by another notification from my burner phone.
Dragon: in 20
Me: Roof of the old bank?
I roll my eyes slightly at Dragon’s texts. I struggle to understand how someone as intelligent as her, whose power is literally fueled by her own intelligence, texts in the jumbled, punctuation-free way she does. She’s mentioned a few times that it saves her a few seconds and she’s usually distracted with her work when she’s texting, but it just seems unusual to me. I brush it off and breath a sigh of relief, grabbing my bag, leaving the room and eventually, the school.
I walk a few blocks until I hit a park that’s fairly dense with trees. I double check to make sure I’m not being followed and that nobody happens to be idly watching me and am relieved to be totally alone. I duck behind a tree and quickly pull my glasses off, put them in their case and tuck them in my bag. I don’t have to take them off to wear my mask, but it’s certainly more comfortable. I only really need the glasses to read anyway, my vision is a little worse without them, but I can manage walking a few blocks. I pull the mask on and secure the strap around my head, making sure I can see somewhat clearly out of the paint-stained lenses. Once I’m at least somewhat satisfied with my mediocre and obscured vision. I pull the cloak out of my backpack and pull it over my shoulders, struggling a little to get it over the hose of the mask. I pull the hood up, double and triple checking that all my hair is covered by the black hood. I sling the backpack back over my shoulders and continue my walk towards the old bank. It would be much easier to just transcend and fly there, but not only would it waste energy for sparring, it would also probably cause a scene that I really don’t need right now.
I climb around the back of the old bank, a relic of about four years ago, just like the rest of the old town. This was where the remain great superheroes made a last stand against Archduke Valentin and his forces. Every single hero involved in that fight was killed and this ruined bank stands as a monument to their failure. The bank was an unusual place to fight, but it’s where the heroes got pushed to and cornered. Patriot, the last to fall, managed to kill three villains by himself before he was finally killed. They were all burned in corpse piles by Valentin’s regime, their names have been all but scrubbed from the history books.
I find the old rickety fire escape as best I can with my impaired vision and pull it down to me. I climb up to the top of the bank in a few seconds. I’m surprised this fire escape hasn’t totally broken based on how rickety it is, but for some reason, it’s hanging in there. There’s probably a metaphor for what I’m doing in there somewhere, but fuck that.
I stand on the top of the bank and wait for Dragon, she usually tends to be a few minutes late. If she doesn’t have her head in a book, she’s stumbled onto some old website that hasn’t be taken down or she’s working on some new machine or pill. The girl’s a genius, even without her powers upping her intelligence, but she does have a tendency to get lost in her projects.
As I’m waiting, I notice white flakes landing on the lenses of my mask, I jump back and raise my fists, ready to transcend. It takes me a few seconds until I register that it’s just snow and I finally let my guard down. I let out a staggered breath and hold out my hand as I let the snow fall onto it. It’s light, the first snow of winter, but all it does is add to the eerie haunted mood that resonates through this city. My thoughts are broken by a voice from behind me.
“You sure know how to pick places to hang out Phoenix.” I hear Dragon say, I jump back and tense up for a moment, but Dragon’s voice is distinct and easy to ground myself on.
“You shouldn’t sneak up on me you know. That’s a really good way to get burned.” I reply, only half meaning it.
“Oh please, like you could even start to melt through my scales.”
“So you do jokes now?”
“Why not? This place is thoroughly fucking creepy, so I might as well try to lighten the mood.”
“Welcome to Old Town, it’s not exactly pretty.”
“Fuck. I can’t believe they just left all this standing.”
“They want a reminder of what happens to rebels. I know a thing or two about that.” I touch my side gingerly, Dragon nods grimly at me.
“It still hurts?”
“Occasionally, not often and not nearly as bad as the first year.”
“That’s not good, could be nerve damage.”
“Of course it could, that’s all I fucking need.”
“I’m sorry, do you want to talk about something else?”
“We’re here to fight, let’s fucking fight.”
I turn my whole body to Dragon, getting a good look at her. She’s dressed in a white mask, a mix of rubber and metal that covers her face completely. She wears a light blue, nearly white cloak, similar in style to my black cloak.
“You sure you want to do this now? Wanna take a second to cool off first?”
“Nope. This is the only way I know how to do it.”
I channel the rage I feel, all the anger and hatred I have for Heatstroke for burning me so badly, for killing my family, for ruining my entire life. All the anger and hatred I have for the heroes who failed, and the villains who saw fit to end their lives for standing up for what they believed in. All the anger I have at this world that I can’t fight back against as Rachel. I feel the anger burn up in my chest and boil over, sending a burning sensation all through my body. I see flames appear from seemingly nowhere and wash over my arms, replacing the soft fabric of my cloak and tee shirt with hard black leather armor with a red accent and covering my bare hands with matching gloves a black emblem covered in red flame appears on the back of my gloves. The same changes occur for my chest, an emblem appearing on my leather chest piece. I feel the leather armor pushing up to protect my neck, covering it completely. I watch as my jeans are transformed into black leather pants with the same red accents and the same emblem on my belt. My boots transform into soft shoes, almost similar to that of a jester. They’re soft and flexible, incredibly easy to move and run in, I feel as if all of the skin beneath my armor is turning to pure flame, just wildfire contained in a human shape. I feel fire reforming my muscles, giving them a supernatural strength and agility, and giving them a muscle memory it would take years or decades to master. I feel my mask becoming a solid black face mask with a grey bar of metal along my eyes. The lenses of my mask disappear, and my eyes along with them, leaving empty black sockets visible through the metal of the mask. I’m blinded for half a second before two balls of fire replace my eyes, I can see through them with flawless vision, far better than my usual vision, even with glasses. I feel the straps of the mask solidify themselves and become nearly unbreakable. The final part of the transformation is my hair, the cloak burns off of my head in one fluid motion as my long, straight, dirty blond hair turns into bright red, curly hair made of pure fire. My curls fall effortlessly, slightly shorter and just to my shoulders. They don’t burn me, but they’d burn anyone who got remotely close to my hair. I stand still and take a few big breaths, feeling the power of The Cinder course through me.
I glance over at Dragon, watching as she starts to transcend. White scales, a mix of ice and chitin, begin to cover her arms, once they reach her hands they grow quickly and become sharp claws. The chitin continues to cover her chest and travel down her legs, turning her feet into similar claws to those on her hands. A large tail bursts forth from the base of her spine as two large wings start to grow from her back, growing to a full, impressive wingspan in a matter of seconds. The scales keep growing up her neck and within a few moments her mask is gone, replaced by a full draconic muzzle and snout, an impressive row of teeth clearly visible, even at a distance. Her eyes shift back and place themselves on the side of her face. Her cloak finally fades as the scales completely cover her and her hair disappears. As a human, she is a few inches shorter than my 5’7 frame, but now she’s well over eight feet tall. She nods at me and smirks, as well as she can as an icy reptile anyway.
“Alright, let’s do it then.” She bellows, her voice is slightly deeper and carries a guttural resonance.
“Gladly.” I say, assuming a fighting stance.
I charge forward at Dragon, taking a few steps before calling on my increased strength and agility to jump high into the air, using a jet of flame to propel myself higher. Dragon’s ready for me and flies up to intercept me, I let her get close enough to just barely touch me with her claws before I send a circle of flame out from my mid-section, blowing her back and giving me some space as I land back on the roof. Dragon recovers quickly and swoops down for me and I’m barely able to dodge out of the way. I generate my own wings of flame just under my arms and use them to soar after her. She goes higher, going into the clouds. I know that the higher I follow, the more of a disadvantage I’m at, but I need to keep the offensive pressure on her. I let out a few torrents of flame, firing blindly into the clouds.
I feel strong claws grab me from behind, forcing me down towards the ground with them. Dragon pushes me down to the roof and holds me there, pinning me.
“Too aggressive,” Dragon says. “In the air, I have the advantage. Force me down. Don’t let me dictate the terms of the fight. You’re the aggressor, you need to have the upper hand, otherwise, you’re just being reckless.”
I struggle against her, but without being able to move my hands it’s hard to get any fire going. I always have a way out of situations like this though. I take a deep breath and call on my ability to enter The Cinder State. I feel my body fade away, slipping from Dragon’s grasp. My body becomes little more than a hot wind as I disappear completely. I can’t feel anything, but I’m generally aware of where I am as I position myself behind Dragon. I would normally take a second or two to charge more flame against an opponent, but Dragon knows what my power can do, and I have to catch her before she’s ready.
I drop out of my cinder state and land on Dragon’s back, letting a blast of fire loose onto the top of her head. I pull back and unleash another torrent of flame, feeling the anger build inside me. I am so fucking tired of being held down, I am so fucking tired of being ruled by the people who killed my family, I am so fucking tired of knowing I’m going to die for nothing, I am so fuckin-
“Phoenix!” I hear Dragon call out and pull me from my anger fueled state. “I said I give up, three times.”
I look down at Dragon, she has scorch marks covering her head and back. She’s cowering behind a shield of ice and shaking out of pain, fear or anger, maybe a combination of the three. I get off Dragon’s back and take three deep breaths, feeling my anger burn off and dissipate.
“You lost control.” Dragon says.
“Yeah. I’m sorry.” I say, looking away.
“You could have really hurt me.”
“I know. It won’t happen again.”
“You need to keep your anger under control. What if you end up hurting someone or even killing them? Someone who doesn’t fucking deserve it.”
“That won’t happen. My power is fueled by anger, sometimes it can be hard to control, but I’m stronger than it. I control my anger, it doesn’t control me.”
“Usually I believe you, but you seem different today. Angrier, more aggressive.”
“It’s been a rough fucking week. I’m sorry.”
I take a seat on the rooftop and look over the ruins of Old Town. I sigh and let out a deep breath before de-transcending, sending my powers away and turning back into mundane, human Rachel. I check to ensure that my hood and mask are still secure and then look back at Dragon.
“I should have been better. I need to control my anger. I knew I was mad tonight and I shouldn’t have asked you here. I should know I couldn’t control myself. I’m sorry.” I say.
Dragon de-transcends herself and walks towards me, taking a seat next to me on the roof. She is silent for a moment before looking at me.
“I’m your friend you know. At least I try to be as much as I can. I don’t know who you are behind the mask, and I can respect that you don’t want me to, but I’d like to think we’re still friends. I can help you, I can be there for you. Just open up to me, please, tell me what’s wrong.”
I sigh and take a second to think, can I tell her what’s really bothering me? She knows I’m a Flamewake and that my entire family was killed, but if I tell her we’re about to study that in history, I’m going to show my hand and tell her exactly what year I’m in. Can I afford to have Dragon know that?
“It’s just, this sucks, you know? The world I grew up in so different from the one I live in now. When I was a kid everything seemed full of hope and life. Now everything just seems still and dead. I know, we lost and the Archduke gets his way, but it just sucks. Someone born just now, they have no idea what our world used to look like, but we had to watch our world fall apart and we couldn’t do a fucking thing about it.” I say, looking out across the old and dead horizon.
“I know. I’m sorry Phoenix. I didn’t have powers when the Archduke took over. My parents and I were separated a few years ago, they got on a train and… I never saw them again. The next thing I know, I’m being told that I have to attend a boarding school in Oru. I felt powerless and helpless, I wanted to fight, but it would still be almost a year until I was touched by Ienath and became Dragon. I can’t imagine what it was like having powers when the Archduke took over.”
“After the fight with Heatstroke, I was laid out pretty bad. I was taken in by a family friend to recover and by the time I felt well enough to fight again, we had already lost. I gave up the hero thing for a while, but I couldn’t just do nothing. I’m not going down without a fight.”
“Neither am I.”
There’s an awkward pause for just a moment as the snow falls onto our masks and hoods. I take a deep breath and drum my fingers on the edge of the roof.
“And… I’ve been forced to relive what happened to my family, again and again, almost every year at school.” I say, letting the words hang there for a minute.
“I’m… I’m so sorry. Do you want to talk about it? What really happened, not the version our history books tell us.” She asks.
“Are you sure you want to hear this?”
“As long as you want to tell it.”
“Okay, then settle in. I’ll tell you the whole thing.”
I cross my legs and close my eyes, trying to center myself. True rage never dissipates, especially not from a Flamewake, but if I’m going to stay in control while recounting this, I need to hold my anger back. I take three deep breaths and focus on the rage in my heart, calming it, spreading it through my limbs and into the ground. I take another deep breath and open my eyes, looking over at Dragon.
“I assume you know about Heatstroke. How he went to fight the Archduke with Nova, my mom. Nobody is totally sure what happened there, but all we know is that my mom died and Heatstroke came out of there changed and evil.” I start, quelling the building anger inside of me.
“Of course. It’s framed a little different now, but I remember the news reports.” She says.
“Well, Heatstroke went on the warpath, hurting and killing other heroes, stealing weapons, even executing civilians. My grandfather, Wildfire, could no longer ignore what he was doing and with the help of my cousin Bonfire and my uncle Fuego, who both had abilities that could track him, our whole family cornered him in a warehouse hideout. All forty-two living members of my family went to bring him to justice. I was the youngest, at twelve.”
“They let you come?”
“Yes. He killed my mom, they weren’t stopping me. My older brother, Blaze, he tried to talk me out of it, but I needed to be there. Anyway, we showed up at this warehouse and maybe twenty people came charging out of the building with guns and tire irons. They didn’t even get close before my family put them down. Nobody even got scratched. Bonfire, who could see heat signatures, was able to identify where he was in the building and we all headed there. Blaze tried to talk me into going home, but I didn’t listen.”
“Wait, I’m sorry, but, your cousin could see heat signatures? Just her? Don’t you all have the same powers?”
“No. Our benefactor is the same, The Cinder. They’re the spirit of fire and rage. But our powers are slightly different. Every member of my family is touched by The Cinder, either by birth or marriage. We all have the power to create and control fire, however, we all have a special unique power. My power is the ability to go into my ‘Cinder State’, where I can’t touch or be touched by anything and I can move unimpeded. Heatstroke has the ability to teleport through fire. Bonfire was born blind, when she transcended she could see via heat signatures. The Cinder saw fit to give her sight.”
“I see. Sorry, I just knew that both you and Heatstroke can both basically teleport, so I made an assumption.”
“I understand. Anyway, we followed Bonfire and she lead us right to him. He was waiting for us, on a fucking throne made out of pumice stone. My grandfather fought him for a while and the rest of us started acting on our plan. Those of us who were better at creating powerful fire, like me, started making it as fast as we could. Those of us who were better at controlling fire, like my brother, started calling all the fire to a central point, forming a massive fireball. My grandfather called the fire forth and covered Heatstroke in it. We had the idea that if we hit him hard enough, fast enough, he couldn’t teleport away. We were wrong. He was able to teleport as soon as the flame made contact. For a second, we thought we had won, but then the fireball started to turn black. Then my brother grabbed me and used his special power, an unbreakable shield of fire, to protect us just before it exploded. Almost half of my family was instantly turned to ash by the blast.”
I hesitate for a second, feeling the anger build in me again. Begging me to transcend and hunt him down, to get revenge for what he did. I let out a deep breath and try to regain my composure.
“The rest of them burned to death. Nobody even survived the blast except for my brother and I. He tried talking to us, Heatstroke, he told said he was ‘glad it was just us now.’ Zi-uh-Blaze tried to fight him. Heatstroke burned him half to death with a wave of his hand and turned his head to ash right in front of me. I tried to fight back, I told him to go fuck himself and used my power to get behind him and try to take him out, but he was ready and channeled my flame through himself and harmlessly into the ground. He hit me once, and I was down. He just had to slap me and I was down. He told me that ‘they’ wanted me alive, wanted one Flamewake to serve as a reminder. Then he… He grabbed my sides and held me in place while he called ash and flame to his hands and… well. He left me with a permanent reminder. He left me with these fucking burn scars running down the length of both my sides. Then he made me watch as he burned the corpses of my family to nothing but ash. Said he was doing me a favor. ‘If the medics and police could identify even one body, they’d figure out your civilian identity.’ to quote him exactly. Then he was gone, I was alone. The last Flamewake, laying on the ground and sobbing in pain. It took less than ten minutes for him to kill my entire family. I’m going to get my revenge.”
“I know.” Dragon says, placing a hand on my shoulder. “I’m going to help you. He’s going to pay.”
“Phoenix, do you ever worry you’re too close to this? That… that you are letting your desire for revenge get in the way of the mission?”
“Fuck no. I wasn’t gonna stay home then, and I sure as hell am not going to now. Besides, you and Chimera wouldn’t stand a chance without me.”
“We can get help, we’ll talk to Kitsune. if you could give her any secrets on your father she coul-”
“He is not my father!” I scream in her masked face. I stand up, letting out a deep breath and storming towards the fire escape.
“I’m sorry… Phoenix, I…” she says, looking at me sheepishly.
“He’s not my father. My father died with my mother the day they fought the Archduke. When he joined the Archduke’s regime, he stopped being my father. Is that clear?”
“Yes. I’m sorry.”
“It’s… it’s okay. I just want to get this over with as soon as possible. I know I may be a little reckless, but I’m also one of the strongest ‘heroes’ still willing to fight. When we face Heatstroke, you’ll need me.”
“I know. The day we face him is coming. I’m this close to locating his base of operations. As soon as we do, this is over.”
“It’s never over.” I mutter.
We don’t say much for the rest of the night, we just watch the snow fall for a bit before silently going our separate ways. We don’t need to speak, the inevitably of our fate is something we both accepted a long time ago. That’s why we just focus on the next mission until we fail one. After that, well, after that there are no more missions.
We aren’t going to succeed, we both know it, but we aren’t going to go down quietly.