CHAPTER FOUR

The heroes carefully followed the thin trail through the thick trees, edging ever closer to the entrance of the magic city. All had been there before, on one mission or another, and all had hoped never to return. Oranbega’s cold stone corridors seemed never ending, filled with Circle minions and worse. It was a dangerous place made even more so due to the night’s events.

As they moved further into the dense forest they noticed that the dead began to appear less and less until finally no bodies were apparent. The team was silently thankful for that; they had seen too much death tonight and this was a welcome respite. They also noticed there was complete silence. No birds. Not even the buzzing of insects. It was as though every living thing had fled in the wake of that monster. It was…disturbing, to say the least.

Suddenly, they came to a glade of soft grass and dirt and across the expanse a formation of rock sprang up just at the tree line. Imbedded in it’s face was a wooden door made up of four planks, "NO TRESPASSING" crudely written in black paint over them. They crossed the glade, General Scrap and Tropic in the lead, the rest spread out behind them.

"There it is," Scrap nodded.

"Hey! Over here!", Cadecus called out. The team gathered around the healer as he crouched over the ground. A huge footprint was outlined in the damp earth, the claws clearly visible.

"Well," Buttercup sighed, "we know it was here."

"Or…there could be two of them," Tropic said, his head low and hiding a crooked grin.

Temptations stared at the red-skinned man with a raised eyebrow. "Oh, thank you very much, Tropic," she said with mock outrage. The fire blaster grinned and shrugged. The others looked at him and, shaking their heads, and made their way to the wooden gate and Oranbega.

They pried open the door and entered the city. They stood in a type of foyer, floor and walls of stone, and around them bookshelves holding arcane tomes and artifacts, candles and bones. Directly ahead of them a triangular arch beckoned. Beyond that lie the halls and buildings of the city.

But there was something…not right.

Buttercup breathed in and frowned. "What’s that smell?"

Temptations had already noticed it and held her broadsword at the ready. She looked at the archway then turned to her friend. "Death," she said simply and quietly turned again to the arch.

"And blood," Tropic added, the iron-copper scent permeated the place. The others may not have been able to sense it, but the fiery hero could. He had smelled it enough in his long life. And he also knew that the place reeked of it. And he knew how much of it was needed to cause this stench.

"Listen," Cadecus said softly. The heroes looked at each other. There was no sound. No chanting. No shuffling footsteps. Nothing.

General Scrap frowned and said, "All right," and as one they entered the archway and Oranbega.

**********

They felt the eyes on them as soon as they entered City Hall. Here was a place where fledgling heroes began their careers, heads full of dreams of glory, their costumes crisp and clean. In their thoughts every battle was won with effortless skill and defeat was so foreign a concept it didn’t even register as a possibility.

Then they saw Top Ten stride purposefully into the building and across the great hall towards the hero assignment offices. The six heroes were covered with dirt and grass stains, their uniforms ripped and torn, but still walked straight with grim resolve. They felt the eyes upon them and heard the murmurs of surprise and paid them absolutely no attention.

They walked to the small hallway to the right of the building and down the few steps to the assignment area. This was the first stop for new superheroes in Paragon City but sometimes even the more experienced crime fighters needed help. Through the double doors on the right were the offices of the Modern Arcane Guild of Investigation and hopefully some answers.

Both doors swung open and they headed for the reception desk where a disinterested young woman sat, a hands free microphone and earpiece on the left side of her narrow face. Her dark hair was pulled into a tight bun and her blouse was buttoned up to her neck. The seam in the sleeves of her business suit was razor sharp. Her lip curled slightly as she looked the heroes up and down. "Yes?", she said with an exasperated sigh, "may I help you?"

"We need to see Azuria right away!", Willow exclaimed.

"Do you have an appointment?"

"An…appointment?," Valya repeated incredulously. "Um…No, but…"

"Well, I’m sorry but things are a bit hectic at the moment," the receptionist interrupted. "If you could be lambs and have a seat we’ll see if we can fit you in. Thanks"

The heroes looked at each other with astonishment. Miyaka stepped forward. "Look..," she paused to read the nameplate on the corner of the desk, "umm…Renee, this is very important. There’s a…"

"And you are…?", Renee cut her off.

"Um…Miyaka."

"And I would know you from…?"

Miyaka turned to her friends her eyes wide, one eyebrow arching upwards. Johnny Cognito answered, "We’re from Top Ten."

Elendil nodded, "Surely you’ve heard of us?"

"So…there will be ten of you…?"

"No, no…it’s a Super Group," Ryuuhoshi tried to explain, "and we’ve really got to see Azuria. It’s very impor…"

"Yes…well…as I said it’s going to be very difficult to fit you in but if you’ll just have a seat over there we’ll see what we can do. Thanks so much." Then she turned and answered the phone, effectively dismissing the stunned heroes.

"Oh, that’s it," Valya growled.


Azuria looked at the report in her hand and frowned. No matter how many times she read it, it still said the same thing: dead in Perez Park with special attention to the Circle of Thorns; swirling green mist over said park; some monstrous entity causing both presumably. She smiled a bit. "They’re all monstrous entities," she thought.

M.A.G.I. had been aware of something for a couple of hours now, ever since they had all felt the…draining. Some of her people were still very wobbly, others, like herself, had throbbing headaches but all still worked, concerned over the occurrence, especially because they really had no idea what was going on. All the information they had was based on second and third person accounts. No eyewitnesses had presented themselves as yet. The only things they were sure of was that it was magical in nature and it didn’t belong here.

One of her aides handed her another printout. The mist in Perez Park was dissipating and beginning to form over the area known as Faultline. The young mystic tugged on her lower lip wondering what that could mean when, from outside the double doors, there was a thud and what seemed to be a very short scream.


Suddenly the doors burst open and six costumed individuals stood there, disheveled and dirty. A red-head with horns had a hold of Azuria’s receptionist by the scruff of the neck, controlling the struggling woman effortlessly. Azuria pinched the bridge of her nose and shook her head. Renee was very good at her job, but was difficult to say the least. She had been in no less than a half dozen other departments and had been moved from each. It was only a matter of time before some hero or other had had enough of her…abruptness.

"We need to see Azuria ASAP!", called out the horned woman.

Azuria sighed and, looking at the woman said, "Valya, yes?"

Valya’s head jolted back in surprise. "Umm…yes. How did you…?"

"We know many things," the young woman replied. She stepped forward confidently. "I am Azuria. What can I do for Top Ten?", she said, smiling at their bewilderment.

Finally WillowWind stepped forward. "In Perez Park," she said hastily, "there’s a demon. It’s killing everyone. But it takes the Circle of Thorns and…"

Now it was Azuria’s turn to be surprised. "You’ve seen it?"

"Seen it?", Ryuuhoshi snorted, " We fought it!"

"Quickly, come in," and Azuria hurried to call her staff to her.

A sly smile curled Valya’s lips as she looked at the receptionist still in her grasp. In a voice that dripped with sugar she said, "Could you be a lamb and wait outside, thanks so much," and with a flip of her wrist tossed the annoying young woman through the doors.

Renee landed with a thud on her backside, the skirt of her prim and proper business suit riding up revealing a zebra striped g-sting and matching garter belt holding up black lace top stockings. She screamed as she tried to pull her dress down and her eyes shot daggers at Elendil and Johnny Cognito as they watched her.

Johnny nodded as he looked at Elendil, one eye squinting at his friend. "It’s always the quiet ones."

As he closed the doors, Elendil looked past Johnny to their teammates Miyaka, WillowWind and Valya. Elendil shook his head and said, "Dude, we don’t know any quiet ones!"

When they were all gathered Azuria spoke. "Tell me everything you know."

**********

The quiet was the most unnerving. As they crept further into Oranbega the unnatural silence seemed to press in on them like a great closing hand.

They had at last become somewhat used to the bodies lining the corridors and chambers of the magic city. Uncountable numbers of mages and mystics, guides and slaves filled the whole of the place. All were in the same condition as their brethren above in the park: drained of life and magic leaving only a mummified husk which once was human. Many of the Circle had literally been torn apart and pieces of bodies blocked their path on more than one occasion.

At least Buttercup and Cadecus had stopped throwing up. Tropic smiled with sympathy at the woman. Although Buttercup was a very dangerous fighter she was probably the gentlest soul he had ever met. Cadecus was having a harder time of it due to his empathic nature. The very thing that made him an extraordinary healer was also causing him the most distress. It was as if he could feel the pain of the Thorns and it made him very unsteady on his feet.

They rounded a corner and came upon a flight of stairs leading downwards. Temptations had the lead and, holding her great broadsword tightly, began to descend the stairs. She kicked a severed foot from her path and General Scrap watched it tumble down the steps. Behind him Cadecus stumbled slightly and he reached out to grab him.

"You OK, buddy?," Scrap asked, the concern evident in his voice.

Cadecus nodded. "Just not used to seeing unpeopled feet rolling around," he smiled.

"I’ll try to be more careful," Temptations said over her shoulder and the healer grinned in gratitude.

Another flight of stairs identical to the first appeared in front of the group. When they reached the bottom a huge cavern opened up before them. Wooden bridges spanned the gap between the stone ledge they stood on and an enormous building on the other side of an underground river. Circling the cavern were stone carvings of gigantic heads, waterfalls flowing from the sculptures open mouths.

"Wow," Temptations whispered with awe. As she scanned the area she saw more dead strewn on the bridge and floating below in the water. "They haven’t been dead that long," she said confidently.

"How can you tell?", frowned Buttercup.

She pointed down at the bodies in the water. "They’re not swelled up yet."

Buttercup grimaced. "Gross," she said matter-of-factly.

"Indeed," whispered Tropic, his gaze sweeping over the building across from them. It was at least six stories tall and they had to search every inch of it.

"Let’s get moving," Scrap said and the team moved over the wooden bridge and entered the temple.

They began their search at the top and worked their way down. Every chamber they entered contained the same grisly contents: dead and dismembered bodies. The sightless eyes of the dead stared upwards as if asking God why this had befallen them. The blood of the slain had not had time to dry and their feet stuck in the vicious fluid. Still they continued downwards, examining every room and hallway.

The team reached the bottom floor of the structure. They searched a few rooms with the same results and then followed a short corridor in back of the temple. Suddenly the hall opened up into a large cavern. In the center of the cavern a large flat stone sat, marked with etchings. Five lines lead away from it to five round stone platforms, one larger then the other four.

Tropic froze in the corridors arch. "This is where it came through," he said in a rough whisper.

"Are you sure?", Scrap asked. His eyes surveyed the cave. "How can you tell?"

Tropic strode forward and stood in the center stone. "Here. Look. You can see the scratches from it’s feet on it," he pointed down at the slab. "They preformed some type of ritual," he said, waving his hand at the other stones.

"Yes," Buttercup continued, "the lead mage stood there at the larger stone," she paced to it and then to the other, smaller stones in turn. "Earth, water, fire, air," she said indicating each stone circle.

Temptations stood near Tropic, looking at the center slab. "What are these markings on it mean?", she asked pulling on her lower lip.

Buttercup joined them at the slab. "They were just etched in recently," she frowned. "But the language…is that Sumerian?"


The others looked at her with raised eyebrows. She sighed and grinned, "I work with ancient antiquities in the Paragon City Museum of Natural History."

"Huh," Cadecus smiled, "Super Librarian."

Tropic smiled and then turned his attention to the markings. "No, not Sumerian," he shook his head. "It looks almost…it could be…" At once both his and Buttercup’s eyes widened and they said in unison, "Arkandian."

Temptations looked at her teammates. Tropic covered his mouth with his right hand, rubbing it back and forth. Buttercup had folded both arms over her chest and looked as if she were going to hug herself unconscious. "So…who are these Arkandians?", she asked.

Tropic and Buttercup looked at each other as if trying to decide if their friends could be trusted. Buttercup finally raised her hand and shook her head as though she were giving permission for Tropic to explain.

The fiery hero took a deep breath. "So far in history, there have been maybe three arcane groups that were evil for the sake of evil. The Hun Lords of the Feuer, who…created me, the Circle of Thorns and the Arkandians. The Hun Lords and the Arkandians are no more. A millennia or so ago they battled it out amongst themselves and regular humans chose that time to strike and wiped them out." He looked deeply into the faces of his friends. "They were evil incarnate and they’d make the Circle of Thorns look like the Girl Scouts." He paused and looked at the slab again. He shook his head. "The Arkandians were worshipers of death, the hands of evil. If the Circle was messing around with one of their spells…"

There was absolute silence in the cavern. Finally General Scrap nodded. "Well, let’s keep looking. Maybe the others….did you hear that?!"

The group stood shock still and they heard it again. It sounded like a bottle rolling over a cement floor. And it was coming from below them. They hurried out of the cavern to the outside of the temple. There they looked down over a low rock wall to where the waterfalls emptied far beneath the city.

They looked at each other and, as one, leapt over the edge into the deluge.
CONTINUE >
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