Content Warning: Violence, PTSD/Anxiety, Death
I wake up suddenly from a nightmare, sitting upright in bed and gripping the sheets tightly to my chest. Every bit of the nightmare felt so real, I could feel the flames on my face, the burns on my sides, the fear in my family members eyes as Heatstroke burned them to death. In the first year or two when I would have nightmares about Heatstroke, I would transcend in my sleep and end up burning the sheets or the scorching the walls. I haven’t done that in the past few years, I have better control of my powers now.
I reach for my phone and check the time, it’s just before four in the morning, which I set my alarm for anyway. I figure it’s time to get up, so I grab my robe and towel from my dresser. The showers are just a few doors down from my room, and luckily, they are almost always empty this early in the morning. Today is no different, so I quickly step into a stall, undress, and turn the shower on. All throughout the shower, I try as best as I can to avoid looking at my scars, to avoid thinking about how they mark me for life, and how if I ever wanted to get intimate with someone, they would have to know exactly who I am.
I turn the water off and stand in silence for a moment, thinking back to the conversation with Dragon. Could we really be on the brink of finding Heatstroke? Could I really be on the brink of avenging my family? I don’t want to get my hopes up, but I trust Dragon. I grab my towel and dry myself off before putting the robe on. Once I’m sure that no parts of my scars are even slightly visible, I leave the shower stall and the bathroom to return to my bedroom. Waking up this early has become as much a routine for me as anything since I started attending this school. I’m cautious about my identity being discovered, but I need to be. If someone discovered who I was, my life would be effectively over.
Anyone with powers would be picked up by the Archduke’s regime, but people like myself, Dragon, and Chimera wouldn’t even be given a trial or a chance to work for them. We’d be locked in The Wall, or maybe even the Archduke’s tower. We’d be tortured for information, and when our usefulness ran out, we’d be killed or brainwashed to serve the Archduke.
I often wonder why Heatstroke hasn’t given them my identity yet. For the first few years, I was expecting a full troop of the Archduke’s soldiers to show up at my door almost every day. Some days I still expect that. Maybe my dad still has some sort of protective feelings for me, or maybe it’s just a sick joke and they’re letting me get a small sliver of hope before they take me away in the night when I start becoming too much of a problem.
I go to my dresser and open up the top section where I hang up some of my clothes, pulling out my uniform and rolling my eyes at it. The uniform includes a skirt, a short sleeved polo, a small ascot, and a jacket. The polo is entirely white, as is the skirt, save for a small purple stripe running across it a few inches from the bottom. The ascot is purple with a pristine purple gem in the center, meant to match the armor of the Archduke. The jacket is a very dark purple with the crest of the Archduke Valentin’s Boarding School in Oru on the left breast pocket. I put the uniform on and check in the mirror to make sure it looks perfect, nothing seems out of place, and there are no noticeable wrinkles. The only deviation from the average student at all is my glasses. I put on black socks and shoes to complete the uniform and take one last look in the mirror.
I glance at my phone again and see it’s a quarter before five, which means I still have to wait almost two hours before the dining hall opens for breakfast. I decide to pass the time by working on some of the homework I didn’t do last night. I finish up some math and music theory, which takes me about an hour, then I glance at my history book. The book is pristine, printed within the past three years. When the Archduke rose to power, most of the old history books were burned and replaced with a “corrected” history. A history that paints my family as monsters and barbarians. A history that calls being different a bad thing. The history books that exist now may as well be propaganda, calling the Archduke a “heroic champion” and calling his decision to outlaw gay marriage a “return to traditional values,” among other things.
I don’t want to read more of this vile pseudo-history, but I know I have to. I read slowly, taking a few seconds to breathe between pages. I’m a Flamewake, I’m a superhero, and I’m a lesbian, so almost every page of this book reminds me that I’m “wrong” and “deviant.” Fuck this place.
I finally reach the end of the chapter and slam the book closed, shoving it back into my backpack. To my annoyance, I see it’s already half past seven, which means that if I want breakfast, I’m going to have to walk through a horde of other students. I glance out my window to the courtyard, seeing a massive line of students outside the dining hall. Getting food isn’t worth it at this point, so I lay back on my bed and focus on my breathing until my alarm goes off, signaling it’s time to get to class.
I head to my first class of the day, history, focusing on my breathing all the way there. I enter the classroom and take a seat at the back of the classroom as a few other students pour in. Kailee Consin, one of the more popular girls in the senior class, gives me a dirty look. I don’t blame her necessarily, we had a bit of a thing last year that we tried to keep very secret. When she wanted to get physical, I broke it off. I wasn’t willing to risk my identity and she wasn’t willing to wait. She didn’t take it well and still holds a grudge.
I sit up and try my best to listen and stay calm as the lecture begins. If reading about my family being murdered was bad, hearing a speech about it is excruciating. Our teacher, Mrs. Fields, starts out with just the “facts,” clearly distorted by the regime, but she’s mostly just parroting the book. Eventually, however, we get to the discussion.
“Heatstroke turned on his family, becoming a hero of the state. This couldn’t have been an easy decision, but it’s one he’s revered for. Even if his family were marauders and raiders, they were still family. What does it say about the man, at his core, to make a choice like that?” Mrs. Fields says. I choke down my anger, biting my lip and gripping the edge of the table slightly. What does it say about him? That he betrayed his family to serve the fucking Archduke? It says he’s a monster, that he’s a traitor, that he’s a murderer, that he-
“He’s a patriot.” A boy in my class says “he put what’s best for his country over what’s best for him.”
Fuck that. Fuck all of that. He killed my entire fucking family with a smile on his face, and we get to remember him as a “patriot.” No, he’s a monster.
“Very good, now, we aren’t exactly looking to examine morals in this class often, but I think examining the reason behind Heatstroke’s decision is important. His decision significantly affected the war and allowed other heroes to follow in his footsteps. So understanding the reasoning behind his choice is, in part, understanding the history.” Mrs. Fields says.
“Why did his family have to be killed?” a girl in the front row, Sarah Garvey, the class president, asks. “Why not just imprison them? I know the regime wasn’t in power then, but they had enough power to hold them until they could arrange for a proper prison.”
“Heatstroke says he would have preferred that route, but they didn’t accept his offer to take them into custody. He was heartbroken about having to hurt them, but it was his only option.” Mrs. Fields answers.
No fucking way! He asked us to surrender? He tried to take us into custody? We tried to take him willingly, to convince him to turn himself in every day for months until we finally decided to hunt him down. That bastard said he tried to offer us a chance to surrender? He’s not just a cold-blooded killer, he’s a liar.
“Bullshit,” I mumble, a little louder than I mean to. Mrs. Fields head snaps towards me.
“Yes, Ms. LeFeu?” She questions. “Did you have a comment?”
“No, please Rachel, by all means. We’d love to hear your input on this discussion.”
I freeze, glaring at Mrs. Fields. I feel the anger pounding in my chest, every instinct I have is begging me to transcend. I want so badly to turn into Phoenix and set this whole school ablaze. I know that wouldn’t accomplish anything in the long run, it would just speed up my death. I take three deep breaths, just trying to force the anger to subside and let me think. I feel my anger, the essence of The Cinder inside of me, push back. I push harder.
“Um, yeah.” I say, my voice cracking. “Uh, he di-did what he had to I guess.”
A ringing starts to fill my ears, sending pain coursing through my head. I try my best not to react, barely letting my eyes flutter. My whole body feels hot and wrong, I can feel my body screaming at me, just wanting to feel the power of transcendence and unleash it on this prison. I force the anger back down, sure that my face must be turning red.
“Very good.” Mrs. Fields says “Rachel, perhaps you’d like to reiterate the theme of this lesson for everyone. In your own words, what does this chapter teach us about the Great War? About Heatstroke?”
Fuck, no, not me, not now. I close my eyes to get my bearings. When I open my eyes, I see flames in the corner of the room and feel the heat of fire on my face. What did I just do? Did I just transcend? Did I hurt someone?
I glance down to see that I’m still in my school uniform, and when I look back up the fire is gone. That doesn’t make me feel any better, or any less hot. I’m hyperventilating and sweating, I can’t get my ears to stop ringing or my head to stop throbbing. I feel my hands shaking slightly. I need to get out of here, now. I need to escape. I need to be Phoenix. I know that storming out or even asking to leave is just going to make a scene. It may even get me found out.
“Heatstroke is…” I start, I glance at Mrs. Fields, only she’s gone. Standing in her place is Heatstroke, and the whole room is ablaze, all of my classmates reduced to ash. I feel my anger and hatred welling up in me, begging me to transform and fight. I start to feel the anger, and the power of The Cinder take over.
“Well, Rachel?” I hear Mrs. Fields ask. I focus my eyes on her again, she’s back. She’s fine. There’s no fire. All my classmates are fine. It was… it was all in my head again. I try to take a deep breath and stomach what I’m about to say.
“Heatstroke is a hero who paved the way for other heroes to change their ways and reform themselves.” I manage to choke out, not worrying the slightest about sounding convincing or making sure my voice doesn’t shake.
“Mrs. Fields, may I go to the nurses’ office?” I ask, begging her with my eyes.
“Yes, of course. You do look a little flushed.”
I don’t wait for her to finish her sentence, as soon as I get permission I grab my books and bag, and I’m gone. I run straight back to the dorms, shoving my key in the lock as soon as I can reach it. I slam the door closed, throw my bag down and collapse on my floor in tears. I’m shaking, I’m hot, I’m sobbing, I need to escape. I need to escape.
I call on the power of The Cinder, the anger boiling in my chest and transcend. Within seconds I’ve gone from Rachel to Phoenix. I feel the leather of my gloves, the metal of my mask, the flame that makes up my eyes and hair. I feel the stronger, better trained muscles and the more resilient body. I’m safe. I’m safe. Nothing can hurt me, not here. Nothing can hurt me. My headache is gone, I can think clearly, I can’t cry when my eyes are just fire. I’m fine. Everything’s fine.
I stay in my room for the rest of the school day, but I only remain transcended for a little less than an hour. I spend the day meditating and thinking. At about four-thirty, I realize that I haven’t eaten breakfast or lunch, so I head down to the dining hall. School’s been out for an hour, so I’m hoping not many people will be around. I enter the hall and see it mostly devoid of people and, to my disappointment, food. It’s the awkward phase between lunch and dinner, so there isn’t much that’s left out. I do manage to scavenge up an apple and a couple of chocolate chip cookies, but it’s hardly a meal.
I head down to the choir room, a tiny room behind our schools’ auditorium. Three rows of risers line the far wall, along with the motivational and instructional posters that hang on every wall in this room. The main thing taking up space, and the only reason I’m here, is the old grand piano that sits in the center of the room. It’s not pretty, nor is it performance worthy, but it’s in tune and it’s accessible, so it’s good enough for me. I’m not technically allowed to be in here without a staff members permission, but if any of the staff actually cared enough to write me up, it’s such a minor mark on my record that it’s worth the risk. Besides, playing the piano isn’t exactly the biggest crime I’ve committed.
I sit down and start to play Chopin’s Nocturne in C# minor, one of my favorite pieces and one of the first I truly mastered. It may seem unusual for the girl with the power’s fueled by anger to be a pianist of all thing, but it soothes me, and I can find a bit of bliss in it. My mother taught my brother and I to play from a young age, and we both found it to be an easy way to calm down and relax.
My eyes close for a minute, getting lost in my own music. I think back to my family’s home and our lives before this whole world went to shit. I was ten years old and sitting at our grand piano, an instrument as beautiful as it was expensive, playing this same piece. It was almost Christmas, and just past nine in the evening. I casually glanced to my right while playing, the entire far wall of our living room was made up of windows, and saw the ocean and sand of the beach our house overlooked. The light of the moon was reflecting so peacefully off the water.
My brother Zion, fourteen at this time, was sitting by the fireplace, doing some sort of artwork on his tablet. He was a talented digital artist, and I always loved to look at his work. The fireplace was lit, we could easily afford to heat our house and just have an electric fireplace, but it figures that the family of fire-based superheroes would want a real fireplace.
My mother was standing by the Christmas tree. The tree was unreasonably large, ours always were, we had to have it shipped over here on a proper semi truck and set up by professionals. It fit in our house just fine, the ceilings were high enough that we’d have plenty of clearance, even for flying. Not that we ever flew in the house… and told our parents about it. Being a famous superhero actually paid quite well, so our parents were able to afford such a large beachside mansion and, essentially, whatever we wanted. Not to say we were spoiled, we weren’t. We had lessons on work ethic and responsibility instilled in us since we were in diapers. We were just very wealthy and got to enjoy the fruits of my families labor. My mother was examining some of our ornaments idly while listening to me play. I knew she was paying close attention to any missed note or tempo mistake. She was a great teacher, and I knew she would gently correct any error after I had finished.
My father had just come in from the kitchen, finishing the glass of wine he had been sipping for the past hour. He watched the whole scene for a minute, the fire, the tree, the music. He just sort of smiled and kissed my mom. We were happy. Things were different. We had faced adversity, but the LeFue family, the Flamewakes, always had each other’s backs. Until the day that one of us didn’t.
Sometimes I still think that I’m going to wake up from a nightmare. That I’ll be in my bed at home, that Zion and my parents will be there, that I’ll go back to living the privileged life of a rich, celebrity, superhero. But no, every morning I wake up, and the Archduke is still in power, I’m still in this school, my dad is still a supervillain, and I’m still a criminal vigilante.
I play the final few notes of the Nocturne and pause as I think of what to play next when I become aware that the door to the choir room is being held open. I turn around, hoping a faculty member doesn’t actually care enough to kick me out and am relieved to see Sarah. I shrug and eye her carefully. Sarah’s a petite girl, fairly waifish, with big green eyes. Her long blonde hair is almost always done up or tied back. Her pale skin is covered by just the slightest bit of makeup. Her outfit and shoes are kept immaculately clean and proper, without a thread out of place.
“Yes?” I ask.
“Hey, Rachel. I was just walking by and heard music. I wanted to find out who was playing it.” She says, her voice shaking a little.
“Well, now you know.”
“Right. It was lovely by the way, Chopin?”
“I thought so. Hey, are you doing okay? You didn’t look so good in class earlier.”
“I’m fine. I just wasn’t feeling well. I was up late doing homework and didn’t get enough sleep.”
“It’s good to hear you’re feeling better. Are you sure you don’t want to talk? I am the class president. I’m supposed to help out my fellow classmates.”
“I’m fine. Just overtired.”
“You did seem pretty upset by the Flamewake discussion.”
“Well, it’s a little sad, don’t you think?”
“The Flamewakes? Yeah…”
“A whole family, gone like that.” I try desperately to mask the bitterness in my voice.
“Well, except his daughter.”
“Phoenix. Yeah. I bet he regrets that now.”
“Maybe he really loves her.”
“What do you think of them? Phoenix, Dragon, Chimera…”
Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me! I just can’t catch a break today.
“Idiots.” I say.
“Really? I- I think they’re heroes.”
“The two aren’t mutually exclusive.”
“I think they’re brave and cool. I’d like to think I’d stand up for what I believe in if I had powers. I’d want to help people.”
This feels like a trap by Valentin’s regime, but I highly doubt Sarah Garvey of all people would be a spy.
“No. You wouldn’t. That’s not how the world works. Not anymore.”
“I believe things can change. I think all that’s needed for change is a few good people to really believe in something.”
“You’re naive. This isn’t a world for naive people. You either get wise or end up a victim. I know which I’d rather do.”
“What happened to you to make you this jaded before you’ve even finished high school?”
“Life, Sarah. Life happened to me.”
“Well, I think they’re heroes! If I ever got powers, I’d want to help them!”
“They’re going to die.”
“We all are.”
“Very young. You’d die too if you had powers. This isn’t a world for heroes anymore.”
“Maybe it’s not…”
“Let me ask you something, what’s the purpose of life?”
“To leave the world a better place than it was when you came into it.” She says, her voice trailing off when she meets my eyes. I sigh and shake my head.
“The point is to survive. Every day that you survive is a victory. You do what you have to in order to survive. Anyone who puts that at risk is either a fool or suicidal.”
I smirk for a moment, I believe what I said. I wonder, for just a moment, which one of those I am.
“I still believe. They’re going to make a difference. There is more to life than surviving. You make everything sound so, hopeless.”
I hear a soft ding from inside a hidden compartment in my backpack, my burner phone. Dragon or Chimera are trying to contact me, which means I need to leave.
“Look, I’m just being honest. Anyway, I need to go. See you around.”
I turn on my heel and head toward the door. I forgot, however, that my backpack was open and my math book loudly clatters to the floor. I bend down to pick it up and feel a searing pain run down my side.
“Ow!” I let out a breathless yelp of pain as I drop to my knees.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I was just trying to h-” Sarah starts, she had tried to grab my book at the same time I did and accidentally knocked her elbow into my side. Dragon’s warning about nerve damage pops into my head for a brief moment,
“Give me that!” I mutter gruffly as I pull the book out of her hands.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you. I was just trying to help.”
“Like I told you, stop trying to help and start trying to survive.”
Sarah and I exchange the briefest glance before I slam the door shut. I’ve never had a talent for reading faces, but hers is somewhere between “I’m really sorry” and “holy shit, you’re Phoenix.” I’m really, really hoping it’s the former. I hurry up to my room and pull my phone out of the hidden compartment in my backpack. I quickly pull up the texting app, and the message I see means that this day isn’t about to get any easier.
Chimera: Duty calls, girls. Bank robbery in progress.
Dragon and I meet on top of the sky bridge just above a long stretch of road in downtown Oru. We’re both in our cloaks and masks, waiting until the most crucial moment to transcend. She and I crouch, watching the roadway and waiting for the getaway car to pass under us. This isn’t the type of mission we would do when it was just Dragon and I, we were more like freedom fighters than vigilantes. Chimera has an obsession with public image, and it’s one that we entertain to have her on our side. Chimera still believes in heroes and wants to make the public believe in them again.
For a while, I entertained the idea that Sarah could be Chimera, but I’ve seen them in the same place way too many times for that to be the case. They just have an annoyingly similar outlook on life. I used to think the world needed people like them, but it doesn’t.
Dragon and I made an effort to get here stealthily and conserve our transcendence, Chimera doesn’t care much for such subtlety. She arrives just a few minutes after we do, fully transcended and floating through the air. She looks like a superhero torn straight out of the nineteen-forties. Her body is covered by a form-fitting blue body glove, accented by her clean, white gloves and boots, A cape hangs from her shoulders to her knees, it’s the same shade of white as her gloves and boots with a bright gold trim. She wears a cowl that leaves her eyes, mouth, and hair uncovered. The cowl is the same blue as her suit, with a small white mask around her eyes. On her hip hangs a three-headed whip. Her lips are a stunning deep red, her eyes are a sparkling crystal blue, and her hair is a wavy, shoulder-length, golden blonde.
“Good afternoon ladies.” She says in a chipper tone, her whole body glows blue as she levitates slightly.
“Hey Chi, you’re sure they’re coming this way? It all seems pretty quiet.” Dragon replies.
“That’s what the police scanner said, enforcers should be in hot pursuit, so we have that to deal with too. Transcend up, we need to be ready.”
“One spirit touched robber. No spirit-touched cops, but they have two paladins.”
Dragon and I both transcend without a second thought. I feel the energy of The Cinder flow through me and let the anger I’ve built up over the course of the day take over in full force. Transcending is, quite possibly, the greatest feeling on earth. The rush of new energy and power flowing through my body, the strengthening of all my muscles and the pure electricity in the air after my body finishes transcending. I smirk behind my mask at Dragon and Chimera.
“So, what’s the plan?” I ask.
“Well, first of all, I brought a friend.” Chimera says.
As if on cue, a zip line launches and hooks onto a pole on the near side of the bridge. A thin girl in white and black armor slings herself up to the bridge via the zip line and does an athletic flip as the zip line shoots back into her wrist-mounted launcher. She stands up and gives us a full view of herself. She’s rail thin and average height, maybe an inch or two shorter than I am. Her armor is white padded cloth with black leather plating covering her chest, back, elbows, knees, and neck. She wears black boots and gloves, with metal cuffs just below the gloves. She has two war fans neatly tucked behind her back plate, her only true weapon. She has long white hair cascading down to her chest, which blends seamlessly into her white fox mask which covers her full face. The mask is pure white except for a bit of black around the eyes and a menacing Cheshire cat style grin on the muzzle of the mask.
“Thought you said you could keep up.” Chimera taunts.
“Considering I can’t fly, I think I made pretty good time.” the girl responds.
“Thanks for coming Kitsune,” Dragon says, extending a claw to shake her hand.
“This job seemed mutually beneficial. I’ve been meaning to take a look around some enforcer vans. You know my rules. I don’t help cops, we aren’t letting these guys get arrested.’
“We aren’t evil. We’d never let anyone get taken by the regime. We’ve never sent anyone to The Wall, and we aren’t gonna start now. Enforcers are on the way, we take them out to.”
“Then what’s your endgame?”
“Money goes back to the bank, the thief goes home safe.”
“The enforcers die?”
“Then I’m in.”
“So, what’s our plan?” I ask.
“Take out the enforcers first, then paladins, then we deal with the thieves.” Dragon says, looking out on the horizon.
“Do we have a more specific plan?” Chimera asks, tapping her foot, which looks admittedly odd while she’s floating in the air.
“Yeah, cover the roadway below us in water.”
“I can try. Fluids are hard for me.”
“That’s why I’m having you do it now.”
“You’re the boss.” Chimera says with a shrug. She takes a step forward and stares into the water of the bay that runs alongside the far road. She points a hand towards the water, and slowly a small orb of water emerges from the bay.
“Anything obviously alive in there?” Chimera asks, holding her head.
“Nope, clear of fish.” Dragon informs her.
The orb of water quickly flies from the bay to just under our bridge, quickly settling on the ground and covering a small stretch of road.
“Is that enough?” Chimera asks, letting out a deep breath and sitting on the bridge.
“It’ll do. Nice work.” Dragon says, flying down to the newly drenched cement. Dragon takes a deep breath in and focuses before letting out a torrent of white light from her jaws, the light quickly washes over the water and leaves a thick layer of ice laying over the roadway. Dragon now turns her attention to the barricade separating the road from the bay. She grabs down on the barrier tightly and pulls up, sending bits of concrete and metal into the air. She tosses the destroyed bit of barricade into the water.
“Now we wait.” She says, leaning on a still intact section of the barricade as we start to hear police sirens in the distance.
Within a few minutes, we see a black sedan turn the corner and speed down the road towards us. A man sits in the driver’s seat, his hood up and a bandana and sunglasses covering his face. He’s driving with one hand and holding a pistol out the window with the other. In the back seat sits another man, dressed in a hooded jacket and a Halloween mask of some sort of wolfman. He’s holding a large shotgun and pointing it out the rear window, which has been fully broken open. Lastly, in the passenger seat, is the spirit-touched. He’s got dark black skin with glowing blue marks running all up his arms and continuing down his chest. He has large, blue, angelic wings tucked neatly behind him. His eyes are glowing with the same blue color as the markings on his arms. The image of this figure sitting calmly in the passenger seat of a car is almost comical.
“Chimera, you’re up again.” Dragon says. “Let them go.”
Chimera points a hand toward the car as it starts to glow blue, the wheels of the car spin as it’s slowly lifted off the ground. The panicked driver unloads a clip at Chimera as the gunman in the back shoots for Dragon. Kitsune moves a fraction of a second faster than I do, pushing Chimera to the side and letting the bullets harmlessly impact one of her fans, creating a dull metal on metal sound with each impact. The shot aimed at Dragon barely managed to hit her and almost certainly didn’t break through her icy scales. She shrugs it off nonchalantly as the car flies over the patch of ice and Chimera sets it down on the road. The car speeds off and quickly turns the next corner available to it.
Before we even get a chance to breathe, we hear the sound of thrusters blasting as two paladins, ten-foot tall hulking chunks of metal in a vaguely humanoid shape, fly over us and follow after the car, the turn it took not throwing them at all. Just before it turns, one of the Paladins glances at us for the briefest of moments.
“Chimera, don’t lose the car. We’ll be right behind you.” Dragon orders as Chimera begins to glow with blue energy, quickly taking to the air and following after the metal giants. As soon as she round the corner, two black and white enforcer vans show up. The Cheshire grin on Kitsune’s mask seems to grow for a second as she watches the cops, focusing on them.
“Kit, do it.” Dragon orders.
Kitsune throws her hand to the right as the driver of the first van hits the ice. Just as the driver hits the ice his arm jerks violently to the right as he crashes the van into the metal wall of an office building, almost totally flattening the front end. Kitsune wastes no time dealing with the second, this time throwing her hand to the left. Just as this driver hits the ice, his arm jerks violently to the left. The second van slides and skids awkwardly as it finds a location where the barricade has been torn out and careens into the bay, sinking beneath the water.
“You know? Your power is really fucking creepy, but I’m so glad you’re on our side.” I tell Kitsune as she draws both of her fans and starts to jump down from the bridge.
“Yup, I’m a fucking freak. Now you two go, I need to have a conversation with the police.” she yells back up to me. Dragon nods to me, and we both take to the air, her with her natural wings and me with my wings of flame. We’re worried for a second that we may have lost Chimera, but we start seeing clear signs of laser fire and Chimera throwing things from ground level at the paladins. We actually manage to get pretty close to them, the sound of laser fire becoming obvious the closer we get. We’re actually pretty sure we’re getting close.
I hear a loud blast from behind me as Dragon is struck by a red laser and impacts the ground hard, leaving a small crater in the pavement. I immediately turn and check for our assailant, seeing one paladin with a laser turret coming out of its shoulder. Great, these things have learned how to set traps, that’s all we need.
The paladin lets loose a few blasts of lasers at me, not finding the mark as I dodge between them. I lower my hands and clasp them together as I fly closer to the robot, I swing my hands upward quickly and call fire to them, sending a concentrated jet of flame at the robot. The fire hits it square in the chest, but it doesn’t seem to bother it at all or even make a dent in the armor of the paladin.
It ejects a second turret from its right shoulder, this one looking more like a rifle. It fires both at me simultaneously as I fly back slightly, looking for a better angle of attack. I feel a searing pain in my knee as I see the cannon from his right shoulder made contact with my knee. My costume isn’t broken by it, but it still stings pretty badly. I quickly fly down to street level and grab Dragon, checking to make sure she’s breathing, which she is. She was hit by the stun gun of the paladin, which basically feels like an intensely localized flashbang going off in your face. She’s probably out for a few minutes.
I get back to the sky, flying around to the back of the paladin. It tries to grab me as I fly around it but doesn’t actually turn. I grab onto the back panel of the paladin and call flame to my hands. If I can maintain a grip, I can probably burn my way in. It tries to fly to shake me off, but I manage to hold on well enough. It switches tactics, this time landing on the ground as I start to feel part of the top layer of metal giving way. I see the hinges of its mechanical jaw open as a small cannon appears in its mouth as white energy begins to gather. Fuck, it’s not trying to get me off of it, it’s trying to hit Dragon.
I can probably melt through it if I keep at it, but I have no idea if I’ll be even close to fast enough to shut it down before it hits her, so I jump off. I fly to the crater that Dragon’s laying in and call on every bit of my enhanced strength to lift her scaled body out of the crater. I throw her over my head as she starts to come to. As soon as I’m finished moving her, the paladin fires its mouth cannon at the crater, catching both my legs below the knee. It isn’t painful, but both my legs go numb as soon as it hits me. I look down at my legs and see them encased in an opaque crystalline substance, rooting them to the spot.
It’s a containing carbon, meant to hold spirit-touched in place. It won’t actually kill or leave lasting damage, but I can’t move or feel my legs, and it would take a huge portion of my powers to get out of. Lucky for me, Dragon’s back in the fight, and she’s angry.
Dragon flies at the paladin, pouncing on it, and pinning it to the pavement. With a quick blow, she knocks the stun gun off of its shoulder and bites hard into the bare shoulder. She’s not able to break through, and lets loose a blast of ice in its face. The paladin shakes it off and doesn’t seem at all phased. It hauls back and hits her with one of its massive, metal fists, sending her flying into the side of a nearby building. It fires a few of its burning lasers at her, but they don’t seem to have much of an effect on Dragon’s scaled hide.
It’s a stalemate, and in a fight with a paladin, that’s a death sentence. Paladins don’t run out of power or need to detranscend like us, so we’re basically fucked if I can’t do anything. I’ve fought paladins before, but I’ve been lucky enough to never get hit with carbon until today.
“Dragon, any ideas?” I ask, futility trying to burn through the carbon.
“I can’t slash through it or freeze it. Can you get loose anytime soon?” She asks.
“Trying, but… actually, maybe! Hold on.”
I’m struck with an idea. I call on my special power, the ability to enter my Cinder state, and I’m relieved as my feet start to disappear, leaving empty carbon behind. Within a few seconds, my entire body has disappeared, and I’m in the Cinder state, totally invisible and intangible. Instead of dropping out of it now, I get an idea to take care of the paladin. I float towards the Paladin, locked in combat with Dragon, and slide through its back panel. I look around the chest cavity of the robot, seeing a thick metal frame and a mess of wires and cables. If I can make myself appear in just the right place, I should have enough room. I’m not exactly sure what would happen if I tried to materialize into a solid object, but I don’t plan on finding out.
I focus the fire within me and start gathering it. I’m such a fucking idiot for getting jumped by a two-ton robot, I’m such an idiot for getting my feet encased in carbon, and we shouldn’t even be here in the first place. If Chimera didn’t have such a fucking justice boner, I’d be in my dorm right now. Not like I’d be having a better time there, but I wouldn’t have a massive robot trying to lock me in a high-security super prison for the rest of my life. I grit my teeth and drop out of the cinder state, curling into a ball. A wave of flame erupts from around my body, slicing the paladin down the seam. I land on the concrete and look at Dragon.
“Let’s go, we have lost ground to make up.” I say as I take to the air. Dragon follows after me, but I’m faster than her at this point. My fire is burning hotter than it has in a few weeks and I’m not planning on slowing down. Within a few minutes, I finally catch up to the stopped black sedan. The two guys with guns have them trained on the paladin, their bullets deflecting off of its armor harmlessly. The glowing man is fighting Chimera, throwing bolts of electricity at her, which she is mostly dodging rather than deflecting.
I waste no time, charging into the glowing man and striking him in the chest while letting loose a jet of flame. He falls onto a nearby rooftop and I land next to him. I don’t give him the chance to get up, striking him hard in the face and letting for flame loose. He takes a step back and takes to the air, laughing softly and staring at me.
“You’re not too bright. Are you?” he says, creating an arc of electricity between his hands.
“Phoenix! Stop! He absorbs energy and turns it into electricity!” Chimera warns me, I turn back to the figure just in time to take a blast of electricity to the chest, I go flying back along the roof and hit hard against a ventilation shaft. My head is pounding and my hands can’t stay steady. I open my eyes and I’m seeing double. There’s a solid chance that hit just gave me a concussion. I growl under my breath and see he’s back to fighting Chimera, who’s frantically dodging him.
Dragon arrives a few seconds later, landing on the roof right next to me. She gives me a hand up which I begrudgingly take. She watches the man fight for a second, trying to get a decent read.
“So, what’s the plan?” I ask her.
“Chimera isn’t hitting him, why?” she asks.
“He absorbs energy. Hitting him just makes him stronger.”
“That’s a passive effect?”
“Seems like it.”
“No, he… he’s spending powers to use his shield. He has to be. Nobody is that strong on a base level, not even the Archduke.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes.” Dragon sounds mildly offended that I even asked.
“So what do we do about that?”
“Get him to use his power up, evasive maneuvers, keep him shooting at all three of us. Don’t engage him, just keep dodging him as best you can.”
Dragon takes off towards him before I get a second to reply. Okay fine, she wants us to draw fire, I know a thing or two about that.
I fly to the nearest rooftop to the fight and look him dead in the eyes.
“Hey!” I shout. “I never caught a name.”
“Didn’t give you one.” he replies, firing a bolt of lightning at me. I take a step back to dodge out of the way.
“I like to know who’s ass I’m about to kick. For records and all that.”
“You’re fucking crazy. The name’s Voyager. You?”
“You’re kidding, right? That’s not even in the top hundred coolest electricity based names. Fucking Voyager?”
“Yeah, come say that to my face.”
“Whatever, I’m calling you Sparky.”
“Yeah, and I’m calling you an ambulance!”
Voyager throws two bolts of lightning at me, I backpedal and dive off the back of the roof, quickly calling on my wings again, I swing around the base of the building and fly up towards him, very nearly hitting him but changing course in his face. He fires a shot that almost grazes me as I spin to avoid it. Dragon flies in front of him to get his attention and now it’s more bolts her way. Not long after, Chimera cracks her whip right next to his ear and dodges a few blasts herself.
“Hey, Sparky!” I yell when I see Chimera getting a little worn out. He turns his head to look at me and I flip him off. He readies another beam of electricity, and I prepare to dodge it. He smirks at me as he fires the beam right into Dragon, who wasn’t anticipating it. The beam hits Dragon hard in the chest, and he locks it in on her. She crashes into the ground, but he doesn’t let up, keeping the electricity trained on her.
I fly into him, bumping him slightly. He does stop shocking Dragon but instead grabs me by the hair. He tries to shock me that way but ends up burning his hands on the flames. He swears loudly and shakes his hand as I fly past him. Dragon is down, but as long as Chimera and I can keep up her plan, we have a shot. He extends his hands and tries to train one bolt on me and one on Chimera, but we are both able to dodge those pretty easily. I fly closer to him and slow a little as I pass under him. He stops his beam of electricity and suddenly fires it ahead of me, I was expecting that. What I was not, however, expecting, was his second beam to be right behind me.
I feel waves of electricity course through my body. I can feel my heart quake with each jolt that passes through it. It’s hard to breathe or even focus. I crash hard into the dirt of an alleyway, he doesn’t stop until he’s sure I’m down. Getting a little extra in for good measure. I’m not unconscious, but I’m in no shape to stand and fight.
So it’s just Chimera and Voyager. They eye each other for a moment, Chimera staying rooted in the air. Voyager fires a blast of lightning at Chimera, which she dodges with ease, sliding right back to her original position once it passes.
“Missed me!” she taunts.
“Wasn’t aiming at you.” he says.
Chimera gasps as sparks spread onto her back, she’s next to a transformer, and Voyager just overloaded it. Before she can move, the transformer explodes violently, baptizing her in bright light and electricity. She falls to the ground below hard, smoking and scorched.
Voyager floats about us, calling more electricity to himself. He’s going to kill me, this is how I fucking die, to a petty bank robber in some alley in Oru. I’m not going to make a difference, and I’m a fool for thinking I could. My death doesn’t mean anything, I’m just going to end up a dead in a street fight. Fuck. At least I didn’t give Heatstroke the satisfaction of killing me himself.
His blast misfires into the sky, he looks at his hands, confused. As if his wrist called for his electricity to go well before he meant it to. Suddenly, in a bright flash, he drops out of transcendence and back into his mundane form. He’s a dark skinned man with short curly hair and a thin mustache, he’s dressed in a grey sweatshirt and blue jeans. He starts to fall out of the air and to the ground, the drop is more than fatal, but suddenly he stops. A razor-tipped hook poked through his hood. Kitsune stands on a rooftop, a fan in one hand and a zip line extending from the wrist launder on her other hand.
It takes a few minutes for her to pull him to a rooftop and for Dragon and myself to carry Chimera up there. When we all get there, she has a closed fan in her hand and is eyeing Voyager.
“What are you supposed to be? What did you do to my powers? What the hell is that fan supposed to do?” he says, trying his best not to let his voice shake.
“A fox, but I could easily become your worst nightmare if you don’t cooperate. I made the line of communication between your brain and fine motor skills hiccup, which is why you shot lightning at nothing.” She explains, she pulls back slightly and shoves her war fan into his chest in a quick strike, extending the fan on contact.
“And that’s what this fan does. Question its usefulness as a weapon again, it’s not a mistake I let people make three times.”
The man stays silent. Kitsune walks around him, pulling three backpacks and a large duffle bag from behind some vents.
“So, here’s the deal. You try to run, and we kill you, you try to fight, and we kill you, you try anything we don’t say you can do, and…
“You kill me?”
“Good. I’m glad you’re learning. Oh, and if that girl dies from her injuries, we kill you, is that clear?” Kitsune explains, indicating to the unconscious Chimera.
“Weren’t y’all supposed to be the good guys?” he asks with a small chuckle.
“Yes, so think about what the enforcers would have done to you.”
“Look, what do you want?”
“Well, first off, we’re taking the money, but you aren’t in a position to negotiate where that goes. Secondly, I just want some information. Here’s what I got so far, correct me if I’m wrong. You’re either Trent Long, Jalen Howard, or Michael Lewis.” Kitsune pauses a beat after each name and takes a second to look at him afterward.
“Okay, so you’re Michael.” she says, it’s not a question.
“Wait, what the fuck?” he asks.
“I’m not getting into it, but I only have to ask you a question to figure out the answer. You actually answering is optional, it also means that lying to me is pointless. Understand?”
“Fine, yeah, I’m Michael.”
“You have a younger brother, Edward. Goes by Ed, no, Eddy. Yeah? Yeah. Parents are working in internment, and you’re his guardian. I figure you want the money to start a new life, somewhere far from Oru. Maybe Fangar, or the Diamond Coast. Yeah, Diamond Coast. So that’s why you stole the cash. You aren’t a criminal mastermind or anything.”
“Okay, what do you-”
“Shh. You just got your powers when, last week? Two weeks ago? Three? Three, okay cool. This is your first outing, and you’ve never pushed them to their limits. You’re confused as to why you detranscended. The bad news for you is that just happens when someone pushes themself too far. That’s why you have to conserve energy. Strike smarter, not harder. You weren’t ready for this, you got way too far in over your head and actually put on a pretty good effort against my friends, but you burned too much power way too fast, and it should have killed you.”
“Yeah. Okay, fine. So, it y’all really are the good guys, why did you stop me?”
“Cause we’re the fucking good guys. The Archduke deserves to have his shit stolen, but you need to take directly from him. All your doing with this is making sure that some bank workers get reprimanded and possibly imprisoned by the Archduke. You’re making your life better by making someone else’s worse. That’s no better than them.”
“Banks are insured, nobody’s go-”
“You buy that? You think the Archduke is gonna actually provide insurance to money that isn’t his? No, that’s a lie that petty thieves tell so they can sleep at night.”
Michael stays silent and looks at the ground for a second.
“Here’s the deal.” Kitsune starts, reaching for a small bundle of credits in her backplate. “Your friends are dead. The paladin killed them before I got here. You’re going to take this. It’s 5,000 credits. I can afford to give this to you, it’s worth it. As long as you take your brother and go. You’re going to take your friends’ car and their guns. You’re gonna leave Oru forever. You’re gonna teach your brother how to defend himself, you’re going to master your power, and you’re going to lay as low as possible. You’re a spirit-touched. Ninety-five percent of people in the world with never be anywhere close to as powerful as you are. Fucking own that and turn it into something positive.”
“Okay, and one last thing. If you ever try to get my people imprisoned or hurt my friends again…”
Kitsune throws her hands out quickly, and Michael spreads his arm in a spread eagle pose. She then raises her hand gently, and Michael stands. He looks downright terrified, and his eyes quickly dart around the roof. Kitsune twirls her finger, and Michael spins on his heel. His feet start to move in an almost unnatural way as Kitsune waves her fingers, walking him to the edge of the room.
“All I have to do is flick my wrist, and you jump five stories to your death. I won’t hesitate to kill you next time. I know your secrets Michael Lewis, and that means I have all the power. Now go. Leave Oru. Don’t come back.”
Michael drops his arms and sprints to the fire escape, trying to get as far away from Kitsune as quickly as possible. Kitsune’s power can be downright terrifying, and it’s still uncomfortable to watch someone she has that much control over.
“Did you fully control him?” I ask. I’m not even totally sure she can do that.
“No. I just had temporary full control of his limbs, I had like five secrets on him and nothing big. I could only make him walk very slowly, I wasn’t gonna get him to sprint or beat someone to death or even talk. I need way more than that to make someone a total meat puppet.” Kitsune says.
“You can do more?”
“Yeah. Give me some of your secrets, and I’ll show you sometime. It’s great, I promise.”
“I think I’ll pass. But seriously, how do you do that interrogation bit?”
“I get some pieces of information that could pertain to them, like a list of names, and say them until I read a mild panic or fear reaction on the correct answer and try my best to make logical leaps. All I had to do to get started on that guy was search his backpack. Part of my gift is the ability to read emotions. Of course I was going to find a way to weaponize that.”
“Please never turn to the darkside. Your powers freak me the fuck out.”
“Don’t plan to. Burning to death in a rage inferno freaks me the fuck out.”
“Speaking of death, I did just save all of your lives. So, how about a favor?”
“Sure.” Dragon says with a nod, Chimera is finally sitting up, but her hands are shaking and she’s gripping her head gently.
“I took this from the paladin, it’s a memory core. Can you decrypt and analyze it for me?” Kitsune says, handing Dragon a small metal box with some torn wires.
“Yeah, that’s no problem at all. I can get it to you this weekend if that’s good.”
“That’s great, you know how to contact me. I trust you can return the money.”
“Yeah, I can do it.” Chimera says, her voice shakes slightly as she picks up the duffle bag. “I was the one who said we should go on this job. It’s my fault that we almost died, I’ll take it back.”
“Chi, you can barely walk.” Dragon insists.
“I don’t need to walk, I can fly.” Chimera says taking to the air as she straps the bag across her chest.
“Just let me do this. Please. I think the people are starting to trust me, at least a little.”
Chimera flies off. She’s clearly still in pain, but she’s determined. Kitsune shrugs and fires a zip line in the same general direction as Chimera.
“I’m headed that way anyway, I’ll keep an eye on her.” she says as she takes off swinging down the block.
“Thank you.” Dragon says.
“Well, see you next time?” I say, igniting my wings back and walking to the edge of the rooftop.
“Hey! Phoenix! Dragon!” I hear a voice call from the street, I look down and grumble when I see Sarah Garvey of all people. That’s all I need to end my day. Of course, Dragon flies down to meet her on the street, and for some stupid reason, I decide to follow.
“What can we do for you civilian?” Dragon asks, going into her full “professional superhero” mode.
“I know Phoenix must be looking for her dad. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I did some research and checked out a few buildings. I think I might have found some interesting information.” she says, holding a thin manila folder.
You’re fucking kidding me. She thinks she can find anything that we, a team of superheroes, can’t? Fuck her.
“Leave.” I order.
“But I just wa-”
“Don’t care. Don’t presume to know what I ‘must be’ doing. Don’t mess with me today. Leave and stay out of our way.”
“I’m just trying to help.”
“You wanna help? Then stay out of the way. You’re not a hero, you don’t have powers. You’re just a liability if you keep trying to look into the business of a fucking supervillain.”
“You think that’s all that makes a hero? Powers and a suit?”
“They certainly help.”
“You can’t believe that. I know you have the heart of a hero.”
“Maybe I did. If you wanna find it, go sifting through the pile of ash that is the rest of my family.”
“You’re our best hope for the future, and you don’t even believe in yourself? Why do you even do this then? Why not go join your father?”
“I’m sorry. Did you just say what I think you fucking said?”
Sarah clasps a hand over her mouth and looks at me with genuine fear as I step closer. I feel heat and flame expel from my fists. Every inch of me wants to light her on fire, every inch of me wants to make her pay for that comment, every inch of me wants to make her an example of what happens to naive victims in this world. I grab her by the neck with my right hand and pin her against the brick wall of a nearby building.
“Repeat what you just said.” I order her.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t me-”
“Repeat. What. You. Said.”
“Phoenix. Stand down.” Dragon orders me, bearing her claws and teeth.
I drop Sarah, she immediately cowers, crying and apologizing.
“It’s probably best you get home civilian, thank you for your information. I’m sure it will be a big help.” Dragon says, picking up the folder. Sarah runs off, leaving me alone with Dragon.
“Really? We’re threatening civilians now?” She asks.
“Don’t start with me.” I say, brushing past her.
“If we’re trying to rebuild the image of hero-”
“I don’t give a shit about the image of heroes! I care about finding the bastard that killed my family and making him pay! After that, I could give a fuck what we do! Maybe I’ll quit!”
“Don’t fucking talk to me.”
I take a few steps past her before igniting my wings and screaming into the sky on a jet of flame. Fuck everything about today. I almost died, and I’m not even sure if that cracks the list of the top three worst things that happened to me today. Fuck all of this. I don’t need her. I don’t need anybody. I’ve been on my own since I was twelve, and I could be alone again if I had to. I could be a solo hero. She and Chimera wouldn’t last one week without me!
Or maybe I’m holding them back. I’m not sure which possibility I like less.