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City of Heroes Chapter 1

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By A-S-Thombarr
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Level 1-1: A Paladin in King’s Row


It was twelve years later, and it was pouring.

Stephen had lit candles to set a soft, warm mood to the living room. He sat on his wing chair beside the window and observed as water dripped rhythmically from the street lamp outside. Freedom Plaza was barely visible from the window, what Stephen called “the giant coin” lit up by spotlights. The sky beyond was painted pale blue by the glowing war walls.

A book entitled “A New York City of Heroes: A Brief History of Superheroism in NYC, and Why the FBSA Did Not Locate There” lay open and upside down on the arm of the chair; one of many books that were in his presence. All around Stephen, the floor was littered with piles upon piles of novels and comics. Novels ranging from “A Picture of Dorian Grey,” to “Harry Potter,” to “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” were piled high. Comics such as “The Real and Impossible Adventures of The Freedom Phalanx,”  were never far from reach either, and looked like they had been opened frequently. The bookshelf in the corner of the room, only ten feet from where Stephen sat, was mostly empty. As he observed his collection, he came to the conclusion that a reading chair was not a reading chair if it was not surrounded by reading material.

   The back of his chair was illuminated with bluish-white light from the television at the other side of the room. The volume was low enough that it did not disrupt Stephen’s thoughts, but high enough that he would hear what he needed to hear when it came on. Still, curiosity getting the best of him, Stephen periodically glanced over his shoulder at the television to make sure that he was not missing anything. “Nope. Not yet,” he mumbled to himself. He took in the half eaten pizza that lay on the coffee table beside his cellphone, and the sodden bundle of blue and black cloth that was stuffed on the corner of the couch.

   Just as he stood up to clean the living room a bit, the music he had been looking for came on: rhythmic bass strings combined with gentle tapping on a suspended cymbal and ding of a triangle, followed by the glorious fanfare on trombones and french horns. It was the twenty-five seconds that began the Paragon Newshour. As soon as he heard it, Stephen was almost running to the coffee table to grab his cell.

   The newscaster was coming on as Stephen dialed out, her best television smile already plastered to her face. “Good evening, and welcome to the Paragon News’ Spotlight Segment. Tonight, the Spotlight is on one of our more famous heroes, Amber Undertow, regarding his close friendship with Statesman, his work in the past with the Freedom Phalanx, what he’s doing now, and where he’s going from here. What follows is footage from the famed Rikti Invasion twelve years ago, and his conflict with arch-enemy John ‘Apex’ Hyland.”

Stephen bobbed up and down on the balls of his feet impatiently when he got voicemail. “Dude!” he cried. “Where are you? I thought we were going to watch Spotlight! Call me back!” Hanging up and tossing the phone aside with a grunt of exasperation, he laid eyes on the bundle of blue on the couch and hastily swooped in to pick it up and carry it out of the room. A pair of goggles fell out of the middle of the bundle and he cursed before picking that up as well.

He came back just as the television depicted someone’s personal footage of what looked like Blyde Square, over in Steel Canyon. Stephen could just barely make out the feet of a saluting statue, before whoever was holding the camera jerked and looked around sharply. The image blurred, and then Stephen was watching as none other than a heavy assault suit careened toward him.

Heavy assault suits were hulking masses of steel. At each side they had cannons from which bright blue light (and much worse) poured. A single, yellowish light marked the machine’s eye in the middle of its rounded body. To see one of these machines coming at you was terrifying; it certainly was for this photographer, as the scene jerked once again. He had fallen back.

Stephen’s heart leaped as the familiar red and blue blur shot into the eye of the heavy assault suit, and it burst into a cloud of flames and smoke. He had seen this footage before, but the image of Statesman destroying such an enemy - something that had been created for the purpose of destroying superheroes - in one blow still astonished him.

Statesman descended on the filmer, reaching out a hand. Behind him a bright light filled the air, and another assault suit winked into existence. That’s when the moment that Stephen had been waiting for happened. A rod of blood red lightning struck the heavy assault suit and destroyed it, making Statesman turn around. And there was Amber Undertow - Stephen’s father - arriving at the scene to help. Stephen whooped.

The door banged open, making him jump and wheel around. A man with dark red, curly hair stumbled in. He wore a plated, gold and brick colored exo-proto armor, complete with jewel encrusted, segmented belt and a long, flowing black cape. Gold eyes peered at Stephen, lined with exhaustion.

“You’re late,” Stephen cried. “And in costume.”

“I had a last minute job to take care of, sorry,” the man answered. He looked around the room at the candles. “Are you... setting the mood?”

“No, I...” Stephen trailed off as he understood what his friend meant and he snapped: “Oh, God no! I wanted softer lighting. Jesus, you’re insane Danny.”

Danny sauntered into the room, watching the television. “I’m not that late - they’re still recapping his career.”

“Hmph,” Stephen pouted. “Tell me you at least have a change of clothes with you.”

“I did, but I left them at headquarters.”

“Man, I wanted you to come right here. I thought you were done at five tonight. The tram is right next to City Hall,” Stephen whined.

“Hey, I’m here, aren’t I?” Danny answered nonchalantly. He flopped back onto the couch and stretched with a yawn. “You know that Clockwork are wandering around all over this block right?”

“I know,” Stephen sighed. “I had to fight my way through them just to get-” he trailed off. Danny had given him a look that he did not like when he mentioned “fighting through them.” Clearing his throat, he finished: “I got us a pizza. Sorry I started without you. I got hungry when you didn’t show up.”

“You know,” Danny said as he reached into the pizza box to grab a slice, “if you and I worked together we wouldn’t have to worry about ‘being late,’ as you put it.”

Stephen did not answer, save to grunt noncommittally. This was not a new topic for him. Luckily, the footage was coming to an end and the screen panned over to two people sitting at the desk: one, the newscaster and the other Stephen’s father. He was in his supersuit, including a new pair of sunglasses, and he had a dark x-shaped scar on his forehead; remnants of his wounds from twelve years ago. Stephen took advantage of the moment to say: “Shh, shh, it’s starting!”

#

“So, Amber Undertow,” the newscaster said with a smile, flicking her brown hair back, “thank you for graciously agreeing to be interviewed today.”

“Thank you for having me, Jess,” was Brendan Cipher’s reply. On a large screen behind him and his interviewer, the footage of his battles continued to play.

“I thought I’d dive right in and ask you about your friendship with Statesman. The two of you are close, as I have heard?”

“I’d like to think so,” Brendan grinned, nodding. “I’m fond of him, at least.”

“Surely he’d be fond of you as well, given how much the two of you have been through together.”

“That is true, there’s been a lot.”

“How did the two of you meet? I don’t think that story was ever shared. In the public eye, it always looked kind of like one day you weren’t there, and the next day you were.”

Brendan laughed at that. “In a way that’s quite true. When I was younger I idolized Marcus - Statesman, that is. I wanted to be like him in every way, consistently putting my life on the line to help others. To protect the people I loved. I think he took an interest in me because, quite frankly, my ability was something that had never been seen in Paragon City before - possibly in the world.”

“Your power over water, you mean.”

“Yes, that. So, when I finally joined the Federal Bureau for Superpowered Affairs, he was there to shake my hand.” Brendan looked off, his face wistful, as he thought back to the good old days. He had a pleasant smile playing at the corners of his mouth. “He took me under his wing, became my mentor, and taught me everything I know about being a hero.”

“But you didn’t work with the Freedom Phalanx until Arachnos tried to invade Paragon City.”

“Which time?”

They laughed at that. Though, it hardly seemed wise to poke fun at Arachnos like that. Brendan must have felt the same way because he sobered up quickly: “That’s correct. I kind of offered my... unsolicited... aid to them. While they were a little irked at that, afterwards they admitted that they would not have won without my help. And that has been the proudest moment of my career.”

“Not when you captured Apex?”

That question really sobered him up.

He looked down at his lap, fiddling with the lining to his robe. “While that could be called a proud moment, it is unfortunately marred by so much personal strife and unhappiness that it is hard to believe it as such.”

Jess, the newscaster, caught on to his tone and respectfully brought her’s down as well. She watched him with sympathy. “It must have been hard to apprehend a friend.”

“Through the bitter end of it, I hoped I might save him,” Brendan answered solemnly. “In the same way that Statesman has always wanted to save his old friend Lord Recluse, I hoped there was a shred of light left in him. It was receiving this scar,” he added, gesturing to his forehead, “that told me that there was no hope for him, and it stays as a reminder to this day.”

“What about what he said?” Jess asked. “Reports indicated that he had warned you about a ‘coming storm.’ What was he talking about?”

“States and I looked into that for a number of years following his arrest. It was a dead end, unfortunately. No doubt something he said to throw us off. He was that kind of a person. No coming storm came and we gave it up.” Jess seemed satisfied. However Stephen and Danny both knew Brendan well and the way he was avoiding eye contact was unsettling. The two of them exchanged glances. Was there something he was not sharing?

“What about the theories that it had to do with the Rikti?”

“Well, we looked heavily into that while we investigated,” Brendan said with a shake of his head. “There’s nothing.”

“Apex was just a villain who was spouting nonsense then?”

“When you hear mention of something that is called ‘the coming storm,’ it’s natural to get anxious. What John wanted was to cause anxiety before he was locked away.” There was no doubt about it; he was avoiding eye contact.

“Just one more question, Brendan, before moving on to the question of the future of Paragon City.”

“Shoot.”

She leaned forward, resting her chin on the palm of her hand. Her eyes were intent on Amber Undertow’s, but the hero took it in stride. She smiled and said: “What about what you said at the press release? That Apex was no villain?”

“Ah, yes, that did get a bit of an uproar. What I meant by that was simple,” Brendan sighed. He leaned back in his chair. “John was far less suited to villainy than he ever was to heroics. With his technopathic skills, he made for a fairly decent hero. Once he turned over to the side of darkness - once he threw in his lot with Arachnos and settled for being a glorified lackey - he lost so much of the work he had been doing. He was never very good at doing the evil thing. Even when he and I battled (not just the last time, either) there was always this restraint he had that no others villains had. He struck me much less as a villain of the calibre of Recluse, the Patrons or other such infamous terrors and much more as a guest who was ‘visiting’ the bad guys’ side. That’s my opinion, though.”

“It sounds to me like a part of you still believes he could come back to the light.” Stephen did not like the way she was smiling at Amber Undertow - he had not throughout the whole interview.

Brendan’s face softened. He did not smile, but some warmth that had not been there abruptly lit him. “I suppose that’s true.”

#

As they moved on to discuss politics, elections, gang warfare, and the “future of Paragon City,” Stephen turned to Danny and the two of them let their attention wander. “So, why exactly were you so late coming here?”

“I told you,” Daniel answered with a defensive shrug. His gaze was still fixed on the television; rather, his gaze was fixed beyond the television. “I had a job to do.”

“Yeah, but what was it? Heroing stuff? Did you put some Skulls in their place? Bust the Hellions? What is that motto they say whenever they get approached by an agent? Oh: ‘it’s capes and cowls time.’”

“No, no, it was nothing like that. I’ve moved past Hellions and Skulls.” Stephen could have sworn Danny actually puffed out his chest as he said that. Finally Daniel turned to face him on the couch. He gave Stephen a darkly significant frown. “They have me working on the Outcasts now.”

“Whoa! Moving up in the superhero world, eh?” Stephen said with a grin. He nudged Danny lightly.

“They’ve been more active lately,” Danny answered. He leaned forward for another slice. “Especially in the Hollows. There’s an all-out turf war going on between them and the Trolls. My job is to figure out what their leader is thinking.”

“What would be of interest in the Hollows?”

“That was my question, but clearly Frostfire is looking for something. They have me and Amburn looking into it. She’s on the job right now.” As he spoke a small twinkle appeared in his eye.

Stephen caught it. “You’re, uh, working with Amburn then?”

“They know that we’re friends and they teamed us together. You know how much they love to balance teams.”

“No, actually, I don’t,” Stephen replied, trying not to sound too short. The corner of his friend’s mouth twitched.

“Ok, well, let’s be honest here. Amburn is tough as a tank. Sometimes it’s like she can’t go down.” Danny shrugged, staring at his pizza as he chewed it. “Me, I don’t have nearly that kind of survivability. They teamed us so that I don’t have to deal with possibly being overwhelmed.”

They were silent, watching the interview, but Stephen was not really listening now. He had not seen Amburn in quite some time. His memory of their last visit was hazy at best, and it had been very brief. There had been an argument involved. He fiddled with the hem of his jeans, in the same style as his father. “So, how’s she doing?”

“She’s fine,” Danny said, putting on airs. No one had ever made a ceiling look so interesting, and his eyes were twinkling more than ever. “I think she misses you. When was the last time you saw her? A year ago, now?”

“I guess.”

“Anyway she’s hard at work. I think she’s been throwing herself into the fray ever since her parents split. Says it takes too long to go from one side of Paragon to the other, so she just can’t make the time right now.”

“She has the tram system and super speed.”

“You don’t have to explain that to me,” Danny said. A chiming sound came from within his costume. “That’s just what she says.” Reaching underneath one of the plates on his armor he produced a cell phone and flipped it open. “Go for Danny Darwin.” A long silence as he listened and his countenance changed completely. He sat up straighter. Then, he stood up. Without a word, he hung up the phone and started toward the door.

“Wait, wait, where are you going?” Stephen cried.

“Out, of course,” Danny answered.

“But the interview isn’t over yet. Buddy, we haven’t hung out in a long time!”

Danny’s shoulders were up near his ears and he threw his arms out. “I’ve been telling you for months now that you need to join the Bureau if you want to see me more. My team could use you. The Bureau could use you. I have to go. We’ve made a huge breakthrough. At least I think so.”

“Danny, come on. Will the breakthrough go away if you don’t respond right now?”

“Amburn is in the Hollows right now.” Danny snapped back. “I have to go to her.” They glared at each other from across the room. Behind Stephen, footage of Brendan’s battles flashed over the screen. “Thanks for inviting me over. I had fun.”

“For like five minutes,” Stephen muttered, glaring at the floor.

Danny turned to the door. When he was halfway through, he poked his head back in: “Oh, and Stephen?” A mutinous glare from Stephen. “Careful how much you go out superheroing - you don’t have the protection of the FBSA on your side.” Stephen flushed, thinking of the bundle of blue cloth that he had hidden from Danny before his arrival. “And watch out for Clockwork.”

Then he was gone. Stephen stared at the back of the door sadly before he started about cleaning up. With the pizza box in one hand and his phone in the other, he contemplated calling Danny to apologize. Then, deciding he had nothing to apologize for, he tossed the phone onto the couch.

How had he known that Stephen was moonlighting hero work in King’s Row? He thought he had kept that a pretty good secret, and he had not allowed the press to get a name from him. The only person who knew his name as Cerulean Cipher was him and him alone. He had not even told his father that he was secretly going out to fight the Skulls and Clockwork. Stephen had decided that that was a secret best played close to the vest.

“Damn,” he snarled when he put the leftovers in the refrigerator. “Out of milk.” All it took was a quick glance at his watch to decide he had plenty of time to run to the corner grocer. He was out the door in a matter of moments. He had left his cell phone behind.

#

The storm had not let up yet. If anything, it was getting worse. Stephen pulled his jacket over his head, and he was looking up at Freedom Plaza while he munched on the bag of chips he had purchased with the milk.

It was not that he had never considered joining the FBSA. However, he had seen how much it took Brendan and Rachel away from the house. The two of them spent so much time out on missions that it was hard to see either of them at home together.

When Stephen’s mother retired six years ago, he suddenly had the opportunity to actually know her. They were able to have a relationship. Save for the times that his father took him out on the job, he saw very little of him. Even now, when Brendan had decided to cut back his hours, Stephen did not see as much of him as he could.

He thought he might call him now, to talk with him about the interview, until he remembered that he had left his phone on the couch. “I’ll call when I get back,” he murmured to himself.

Stephen was snapped out of his reverie by a sharp, burning feeling on his backside. Tremors ran through his body. He turned, still trembling, to face whatever had just struck him.

A skeletal structure of a man, no higher than Stephen’s hip, was standing underneath the nearest lamppost. The structure was comprised of a metal that looked something like copper, and gears whirred and hissed beneath a metal rib cage. It was holding out a tiny, whirring hand, from which blue and yellow sparks jumped. A sound, like the chattering of squirrels, hummed from within its tiny body.

“A sprocket,” Stephen hissed. He rounded on the tiny robot, but it had already turned to run. It was joined by two others, all of them giggling. “Oh, run away will you?” he called after the trio. He broke into a trot.

He knew this area well: it was the Gish. A Wentworth’s had been intended for this area of the Gish, but when the project was canned, a dusty lot was left behind, a high concrete wall bordering it. It had been rumored that the officials were going to gate off this area, which was in the darkness underneath the elevated Freedom Plaza. The three sprockets rounded the wall with Stephen in hot pursuit.

Hollow footsteps on an empty street turned into squelching thuds on mud. Stephen, breathing heavily, looked about but he could not find the three clockwork that had run ahead of him. Overhead a bright clap of lightning sent a deafening report through the neighborhood. Low lying townhouses were lit for a split second; mounds of dirt and mud that had rivulets of water pouring down their sides towered over him. There was no sign of the enemy.

He slowed, wandering into the dimly lit lot and looking between the mounds. Ahead of him, there was a heap of scrap metal, all coppery colored or silver. His backside was still stinging, and he winced as he rubbed it. “Where did you go?” Stephen murmured more to himself than anyone else. He turned around and looked out of the lot.

Weakly flickering street lamps made the gray road look even more eerie in the stormy night. In the middle of the cracked road, an empty trash can rolled back and forth, sending glinting flashes of reflected light back at Stephen. Fog had begun to form, clinging to the pavement and sending gentle, whispy tendrils up toward the sky. The clockwork were not there. They had vanished. They certainly were not in the illuminated lot in which he stood.

The illuminated lot? There were no lights present to illuminate the lot.

Stephen turned around once more and saw two bright red lights shining from within the pile of slag that he had seen earlier. A rustling, hissing sound, followed by the creaking of rusty metal, filled the air and drowned out the rain and thunder. The pile of scrap was moving. Stephen stepped back with a sharp intake of breath.

He was too slow, though. A hulking rod of metal thrust forward and struck him directly in the gut. Pain racked Stephen’s body and all of his breath was forced out of him. He sailed through the air, beyond the entrance to the lot, and out onto the street. Landing and skidding on his back, he lay back dazed. Beneath him the ground shuddered and buckled. The entire scrap heap lurched into the light, and Stephen finally understood what he was facing.

The large rod turned out to be attached to the forearm of a tremendous clockwork. The creature was nothing like the tiny sprockets that had taunted Stephen earlier - its skeleton was covered in plates of armor. Shards of metal jutted out of its structure at jagged angles. The two red lights that had appeared behind Stephen were its eyes, blinking out from its copper and bronze plated face.

Stephen rose to his knees, clutching his stomach and staring up at the clockwork. “A... paladin too?” he grunted.

The monstrous clockwork rested its right hand on the wall by the lot and clenched a fist. A chunk of the wall tore of in its grasp and, with a dismissive wave of its hand, it threw the torn off section of the wall at Stephen.

“Whoa!”

Without a second’s hesitation, he dove to one side. The segment of the wall struck the ground and the street buckled. The paladin lurched closer to Stephen, reaching out its free hand once again. Fire ran through his body, setting him rigid. He could not move, save to shiver and jerk about. His entire line of vision was blanketed in a net of electricity.

The cage of lightning faded, and Stephen regained his senses just enough to stagger back and avoid the bludgeoning hand that would have killed him in an instant if it had landed.

Gasping for air, still shuddering, Stephen thrust his hand out. He imagined what he had done to those thugs from the Skulls a million times - bands of light that would wrap around the Paladin’s legs and root it on the spot. The bands of light did not actually appear to anyone’s eyes other than his own, as what he was doing was simply using his own mind to constrict the Paladin’s movements.

Or try to.

The mental bands rippled and wrapped around its legs as they had so many people before, but the Paladin still barreled at Stephen, club raised. He cried out and raised his hand once more. This time a blue-white light formed on his hands; heat filled the air and rain turned to steam around the boy. Then the light gave off a high pitched whine before erupting forward; it struck the Paladin’s chest and glanced off of it harmlessly as the Paladin backhanded Stephen and sent him flying to one side.

Stephen launched high enough into the air to land on the roof of a nearby building and skid backwards where he remained, waiting for the giant monster to come finish him off. In a far off corner of his brain he wondered where this Paladin had come from. Why had it chosen to target him? He was not a hero - at least not officially. There was no benefit to be had from killing him. And yet, it had definitely chosen to target him of all people.

Crashing, earth shaking footsteps grew distant. Stephen began to feel the will to move again and he pushed himself to a sitting position with a groan. Then the electricity railed his body with pain once more. This time he didn’t scream, and he waited for it to end. It was as he stood that Stephen became aware of a change in his body.

That feeling like fire was pulsing through his veins persisted even after the cage of lightning faded, but now it wasn’t a bad feeling. In fact, it felt good. Stephen’s body was buzzing with power. And that was when he understood - the paladin was filling him with energy. It came lumbering back at him, so slow now that it was laughable. Stephen’s pulse roared in his ears. God, but he ached.

Once more, he imagined the bands of light, but this time he unraveled the bands in his mind and he tied them together like a wave. He pushed that wave with a shout, and the paladin was thrown into the air, crashing against the stone wall and staggering in a daze. Stephen stumbled to his feet. The world was spinning around him; his body vibrated.

The paladin was back up, and Stephen heard himself laughing weakly. Was that his pulse he felt? It was so fast. The Clockwork jabbed again with the clubbed arm, and the strike hit true, but when it raised its arm to strike Stephen a second time, it found that its prey was gone.

Stephen clung to the end of the club, climbing up the adversary’s arm by grabbing on to the metal spikes that jutted out. The paladin swung its arm frantically, trying to shake Stephen off, but he refused to let go. Not this time. He locked eyes with the machine, and then everything was bathed in blue light. A sound like thunder, and the screaming of metal exploded around him, deafening him and throwing him back.

Then he was on the ground, lying on his back in a puddle of spilled milk and staring up at the rainclouds. Silence surrounded him. Have to get up, Stephen thought. Have to get up. The paladin’s going to attack. But try as he might, he couldn’t move a muscle. He was beyond pain. No attack came. So Stephen lay in the dirt, staring into the sky, and he drifted.
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© 2014 - 2020 A-S-Thombarr
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