About a mile above Talos Island, deep inside a cumulus cloud Tara stared blankly in horror at what she was hearing through her earpiece. “Is everything ok, Triblaze?” The weather controller responsible for the cloud, a young girl with white wisps where her hair should be and eyes that looked like pools of water, stared right back at her. It took a moment, but Tara shook herself to. “Do you know the name Pyrerain?”
“Who doesn’t?” The girl, who could be in her late teens, at the most her early twenties, though it was hard to tell, shook her head.
“Well, he’s down there, right now.”
The girl, Nimbus, looked like she’d just been punched in the gut. Several others around them looked the same.
“There’s something you all need to know.” Tara took a very deep breath “Ten years ago when I…” She swallowed “We buried him. Pyrerain was gone. But the Circle of Thorns kept the soul of the man whose body Pyrerain used. We managed to find it. To free it, just as the Circle of Thorns were preparing to bring Pyrerain back. They’d dug him up, healed him…” Tara knew she look as sickened as she felt. “The soul of the man; Kai Rayne, took his body back. He stopped his body becoming the host for that demon again. They merged. He is Pyrerain. He can do everything that monster could. But his soul is his own. We have to trust that.” She looked around the mixture of emotions facing her “We’ve all had to ally with people we’ve wanted nothing more to do with that throw in a cell in the Zig. And this is no different. Today, we let him help us fight the Rikti. If he tries to turns on us, then we all have to make sure he doesn’t get the chance.” The flyers all nodded, one by one “Right now he’s with us and he’s strong. We have to make sure that every ounce of that strength is used against the Rikti. We have to protect him. He’s our best hope.”
“When is this going to stop?!” A voice called out, belonging to a Hero named Bullet.
“When the Rikti understand that we are more of a threat than them. When they realise that every time they come to this dimension we will kick their asses right out again. Whatever it takes.”
“I’m not protecting someone who killed all those people!” Bullet cried out.
“I’m not asking you to!” Tara shook her head “I’m asking you to protect Kai Rayne. He’s the only hope we’ve got.”
The cloud turned orange red around them, as if the sky below was on fire. The flyers looked down, not all of them knowing what they were seeing, but not wanting to dare to drop lower to find out. Underneath the fog Kai, now a dragon the length of a Paragon City metro train with scales yielding fire as hot as the core of Terra Volta, tore through the air towards the nearest Rikti drop ship. He didn’t know what was going to happen. But he knew he wasn’t going to let it land. All over the city, Rikti troops were being reported, and below him, far below, he sensed Jain Acheson desperately fending off soldiers trying to cut off citizens’ escape from Talos Island to the sewers of Paragon City proper. All he had was a skin of ice and the hope that his energy manipulation was strong enough to counteract Rikti weaponry. Neither power would last long enough if more of those parasites reached the ground. Kai fixed his sights on the ship. He figured it carried about a hundred soldiers, maybe more. It would be a good test. Of course, the ship had spotted him. Everyone who could see Talos Island had spotted him. Every ship within 10 miles had spotted him; he was like a second sunrise blazing over the skyscrapers. He saw the guns on the ship move, targeting him. And a moment later they opened fire. Blasts of green split his fire apart and hit his scales. They weren’t really scales. They were… him. Him made to look like scales to scare people. But the Rikti weren’t people. He didn’t know if they were scared of him or just thought he would be a good test too. The green hurt as it hit him. Not like the pain of a bullet, or a knife. It was like a hundred pins digging into his skin all at once. As blast after blast hit Kai he began to get angry. That was a good sign. Anger must mean he wasn’t being that badly hurt. He shot forward.
Kai opened the jaws of the dragon visage and bathed the ship in fire. The hull baked, then groaned, then started to melt under the intense heat. The guns fell free; dead weight falling onto a gas tanker left abandoned in the street below. The explosion levelled half a city block, but it sure helped Jain out, though Kai was certain he’d have to listen to the complaints of Jain being knocked back onto his ass for the next month. But he had half the number of Rikti to hold off now and that’s what mattered. Jain looked up, grinned and then landed a punch with the force of a small traffic collision into the faceplate of a soldier as the blast hurtled it towards him. Kai circled, hanging mid-air as the drop ship listed. It looked like a wax toy left too near a candle. Its engines were failing and there was nothing its baked occupants could do. Something in his stomach twisted at the thought of a hundred lives ended in a heartbeat. It had been fast at least. A few moments later the drop ship smashed into a Crey skyscraper. The building seemed to implode at the impact, crunching in on itself before tumbling like kiddie blocks into the building next to it. The drop ship, the skyscraper and one half of Talos Island Mall disappeared in a plume of dust and bright green engine fuel. Kai watched it, seeing every pattern in the smoke, feeling the emptiness where the demonic blood in his body had felt the Rikti lives. In that moment he resolved that when this was all over he’d hand himself over to any authority that wanted him and he’d answer for what he’d done. Everything. Even the crimes Pyrerain had committed while he was stuck in a glass ball. But not before he’d made sure this was finished. Kai sensed them and his eyes confirmed it; five more drop ships, guns ready to fire, were approaching. He wasn’t going to give them the chance.
“If I’d known…” Jain ducked as a Rikti soldier tried to hit him square in the nose with the butt of his rifle “…that all we had to do was awaken a demonic fire dragon…” He sidestepped as the angered trooper tried to hit him again “…I’d have recommended it in the last two wars.” He booted the Rikti in the stomach. It went tumbling backwards, taking the one about to shoot at Jain down with it.
“Hindsight. Twenty Twenty…!” Taylor di la Conti, the psychic who had put blocks up in Jain’s mind to stave off the advance of White7’s mind control gritted his teeth and shoved the Rikti rifle in his hands forward; bracing it to keep a huge scythe like blade away from his face. He was marine trained, just like Jain, and it was pissing him off that the Rikti helmets weren’t allowing his mind to penetrate them.
Jain stopped and looked up “That’s seven ships he’s taken out. Give him another ten minutes and this’ll be over.”
Taylor broke the stalemate between him and the wielder of the blade. The Rikti launched for him, but Taylor was too fast. He had no idea why, but he thought a headbutt would be the best method to take the trooper out. Surprisingly, the soldier went down, stone cold unconscious. Taylor moved his hand to his bloody nose, broken clean across the bridge on the Rikti’s mask. Jain winced at the loud crack as his friend twisted the bone back inline. “Baby” Taylor smiled, wiping the leftover blood away.
“Listen, I’ve had a broken nose too. Let me tell you, tomorrow you’re going to cry like a little girl.”
“Jealousy is a bad, bad thing.”
Jain raised an eyebrow and punched a Rikti in the throat as it ran at him with an ice laden fist. “Trust me, I looked better with a fucked up nose, than you look on your best day.”
“Is all this because your ex-wife’s psychic, super-strong, probably immortal, fire-breathing dragon ex-boyfriend is currently being cheered by every person in this city?”
Jain looked grumpy “I talked down Lord Recluse.”
“Is that right?” Taylor half smiled, “Sweet nothings to Lord Recluse huh?”
Jain looked even grumpier at knowing that whole conversation had probably been overheard. “Just shut up and get back to posing already.”
“Are you guys done comparing dicks?” Tara’s voice crackled in their ears “We’re flying blind up here.”
Taylor looked up into the sky; eyes that almost appeared to become blind moving over every inch of it. “You’re good to go, Blaze. Those ships are evac-ing fighters. Take them out.”
The cumulus cloud dissolved as fifty Heroes burst from it. Moments later the sky lit up with streaks of flame, electricity and energy bolts one by one taking out the smaller Rikti ships.
“Recluse’s forces have Terra Volta under control. The Rikti there have surrendered.” Flashback, the super-speed scrapper leading a surveillance team around the city reported over their communications. A moment later they heard his voice again “Confirmed victories in Faultline and Kings Row too thanks to the controllers and the Evisceration have held Galaxy City.”
“I guess this was a bad day to be a bad guy.” Jain smiled.
“Too bad for your boss, huh?” Jain glanced to him.
“Yeah… too bad” Jain looked troubled.
In Galaxy City Sister Sever stared down at the glass eyed bodies of the three members of White7 sent to stop their bank raid. Next to her, Vera-Ellen wiped off a six inch blade “Oops.”
Sever moved her eyes to her “Just make sure the money’s left.”
“What? Ya’ll’ve gotta be kiddin me?” Vera-Ellen looked mortally offended behind her messy blonde hair.
“I’m not. We’re not out for ourselves today. We can come back for it tomorrow.” Her eyes moved back to the bodies; the not quite human bodies. “That’s two at Terra Volta. Three here. Jain makes six… One to go…”
Vera-Ellen glanced to Dark Pain Lord, who was approaching with 486 after surprisingly thoughtfully arranging a group of unconscious bank guards on the floor so they’d be comfy when they woke up “What’re you thinking, boss?”
“I’m thinking that something is going on.” Sever straightened up “Acheson escaped them and they didn’t come after him until he made it to Terra Volta, but the place would have been swarming with Arachnos. They’d have known that. Even a group of superior assholes like White7 wouldn’t just swoop on in there. They sent three here… That’s a lot of attention for a bank heist. Even if it is to deal with us… We’re being double bluffed.”
“Ya’ll thinkin it’s a diversion?” Vera-Ellen put one hand on her hip, looking between her comrades.
“Yes… Yes I am…” Sever’s eyes darkened as the sound of victorious cheering penetrated the damaged walls of the bank and the chatter of celebrating Heroes came through her own earpiece. “I think this has all been a diversion…”
The Heroes gathered at the centre of Talos Island amid the smoking rubble of the buildings. Between them, in a matter of hours, thousands of citizens had been moved to safety, hundreds of Rikti had been rounded up and were en-route to be held in the Ziggurat and every Rikti ship that had made it through the portal had been brought down. There had been causalities. Over a third of them were wounded and half of that number again would be memorialised when this was finally done; their names inscribed forever next to their fallen brothers who had given their lives in the first and second Rikti wars. But spirits were high. They’d achieved what they’d set out to achieve. Villains had become Heroes and they’d stopped the Rikti from gaining any more ground on Earth. As they all gathered, the Outlaw Stars stood ready in front of them to speak, casual for now, their arms folded, still grubby from fighting.
“That shouldn’t have worked.” Tara shook her head; her mask in her hand.
“It shouldn’t’ve worked, but it did.” Jain nodded.
“We had things White7 couldn’t have anticipated. No one would ever factor in Arachnos joining the fight. And not even we thought of a resurrected demon.” Taylor smiled, hoping Kai would understand his terminology. Kai didn’t seem to react either way, arms folded, a stony expression on his face.
“You had to.” Tara spoke very gently.
“…I know” Kai nodded.
“So what now?” Jain looked between them.
“Clean up. At least for the majority. We’ve still got a job to do.” Tara’s eyes moved over them.
“Ria.” Jain growled.
“Exactly.” Tara agreed.
“The sooner the better.” They all glanced to Sister Sever’s voice together, like an inbuilt reflex, and not surprising too given the number of times they’d faced each other in the past. “It’s a set-up.”
“What is?” Tara already looked suspicious of her arrival at just that moment, not liking that Sever was flanked with every member of the Evisceration.
“Think about it.” Sever joined their circle “Every part of that plan just went off without a hitch. Sure, we trashed the hell out of Talos Island, but that’s to be expected. I don’t know White7 as... intimately as some of you…” Her eyes drifted to Jain, who gritted his teeth in response. “But I know that someone who would spend two years working to slowly eradicate us from society all to open a Rikti portal without raising suspicion isn’t done yet. She’s disappeared and there’s one member of White7 who hasn’t even made an appearance yet.”
“Nurse?” Jain suddenly looked worried.
“The one that broke you out?” Tara looked to him, the same worry filling her face.
“Nurse wasn’t involved in this. She had a mental cap like me.” Jain shook his head.
“So where is she?” Sever shrugged.
“I haven’t seen her since she got me out…” Jain could feel the silence of the group seeping into his stomach. He shook his head vigorously “She wouldn’t be involved in this.”
“Maybe you just didn’t see it because you were sleeping with her?” Tara couldn’t stop herself from saying it; though fell instantly silent as Taylor shook his head subtly at her.
“No!” Jain could feel himself getting angry “She wouldn’t do this!”
“Slow down.” Taylor held his hands out in an attempt to calm them. “We don’t know what “this” is yet. It could be nothing.” He looked to Sever. “I know what you’re saying. It shouldn’t have been this easy, but we had some serious advantages, even with the Freedom Phalanx off world. The Rikti have become desperate, we know that. They could have grown cocky; attacked too soon.”
“They waited two years. This isn’t done.” Sever shook her head. “There’s something more to all of this. You know it.”
“We’re not about to start telling people we didn’t win here today.” Jain shook his head defiantly.
“Well if I were you, I wouldn’t break out the champagne. That’s all I’m saying.” Sister Sever looked into his eyes. “You know how to find us when we turn out to be right…” She held his gaze a little longer, then turned and headed towards a Paragon City Bank armoured van Dark Pain Lord had just started up.
Jain watched her and her crew go; a bitter taste in his mouth.
“What if she’s right?” Tara broke the silence first.
“Then we work it out before we find out the hard way.” Jain sighed.
“How?” Tara pressed him.
“I don’t know...” Jain took a deep breath and walked off in the direction of the Talos Island sewers, much to the dismay of the crowd, waiting for Outlaw Stars to speak.
Continued here in Chapter 9.